The public upsurge in white supremacist politics in the last year or so has refocused my attention on the ongoing need to get our history right. To continuously struggle to challenge every assumption about how and why life is organized in the fashion that we find today.
In July of this year, the Florida Board of Education issued new standards for teaching students about slavery. This included “Instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”1 Appropriately, an uproar ensued. This is in the midst of a noisy anti-woke campaign by Trump, DeSantis, and the rest of the Republican Party.
I admit to being puzzled at first about the word, “woke.” It was then new to my vocabulary. After a bit of poking about, I now understand that the word has been part of African-American vocabulary for many decades. As in the sense of being well informed and aware politically and culturally, especially as it applies to racism, particularly in its white supremacist variations. With that in mind, I can see why white people, especially of the nativist Evangelical C
hristian sort, would find this anti-woke campaign so attractive. Horrors that people might find a way to a narrative of our history that more clearly reflects what actually happened. You mean the enslaved people of the Old South weren’t happy?! You mean Jim Crow South was not a racist totalitarian regime of oppression.2
Here are some woke decolonization topics on my mind:
- Write the history of the Western Hemisphere to include the indigenous peoples who lived here for at least 14,000 years before they were civilized and saved by Christianity. Numerous, large civilizations existed before Europeans showed up. Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis, had a population as large as London or Paris in 1,000 CE.3
- Write the history of the US to include the complex of white behaviors towards the indigenous peoples that included genocide, colonization, forced migrations, cultural annihilation, and more. End the notion of Manifest Destiny and the later development of the US as an exceptional society that should spread its wonders across the globe.
- Revisit the Enlightenment to point out that for all of its positive human values, it left out women, most working people, brown and black people, and the enslavement of many during the colonization of much of the world.4
- Revisit European history with a particular eye to the plague of wars and oppressions carried out in the name of various organized religions.
- Correct the history of capitalism – it didn’t come from God, it is not a perfect self-regulating system, government is central to its history and development, the rich and corporations understand how capitalism actually works far more accurately than our economics departments.
- Describe the functioning of the much-vaunted US legal system with enough accuracy to encompass the fact that trial by jury is almost a rarity. Over 95% of criminal cases are settled by plea bargaining between very unequal parties – the defendants and the prosecutors. Understand that the civil law system is really the home territory of the rich and corporations who can afford to field expensive lawyers to gain their pounds of flesh.
- Stop describing the US as a democracy. Structurally the Federal government is set up to support minority rule. The ten least populous states have a total population of 9.6 million. California, the most populous state, has 39.2 million people. These ten sparsely populated states, Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, Rhode Island, Montana, Maine, and New Hampshire, have 20 Senators. On average, each of these Senators represents 479,000 people. Meanwhile, California’s two Senators represent 19,600,000 people EACH. Further, take into account the many $Billions spent by the rich and corporations to control legislation and regulations in Washington. Better to be clear that we are living in a plutocracy with a patina of voting for dress up.
- Take the gloves off about the true contributions of organized religions. They are all run by men, demean or actively oppress women, foment conflict with other religions, and consume huge resources for their edifices and bureaucracies of faith.
There are lots more topics that could be developed under the banner of trying to get our history right. Fortunately, there are already large bodies of work, so we are not starting g from scratch. The issue is how to move this research from the halls of academe and the hang outs of activists to history textbooks and popular media. Decolonizing our history and our present-day relations with the world is an urgent matter. Being vigorously woke is absolutely necessary and the correct stance.
- Florida’s State Academic Standards –Social Studies, 2023 https://www.fldoe.org/core/fileparse.php/20653/urlt/6-4.pdf
- For a description of the daily impacts of Jim Crow laws and regulations, see: Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, 1st ed (New York: Random House, 2010).
- for a popular introduction to this topic: Charles C Mann, 1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2006).
- See Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract, 1st edition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999) and Charles W Mills, “Provost Lecture: Charles Mills – Liberalism and Racial Justice” (Stony Brook University, September 27, 2012), https://www.youtube.com/.