White Lies My Textbooks Taught Me

Shirley Williams

“I’m sick of them telling us lies, Auntie,” my 12-year-old niece Arianna said to me one day after school, fed up with what she was learning in her seventh grade history class. 

The American history that is taught in many seventh-grade classrooms has been whitewashed. Black history’s biggest villains — colonizers like Christopher Columbus, Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee, or enslavers like Thomas Jefferson — are some of America’s greatest heroes. Look no further than the monuments still standing in their honor and the buildings bearing their names to prove just that.

For example, The University Of South Carolina women’s residence hall is named after the “Father Of Gynecology,” J. Marion Sims. During the mid-1800s, Sims performed cruel surgeries on enslaved women without anesthesia because he believed Black women felt no pain.

Our Founding Fathers are remembered as great men who shaped our nation. Former president Thomas Jefferson is said to have once been in love with his slave Sally Hemings. To say Hemings was loved by Jefferson lessens the crime Jefferson committed: rape. As an enslaved woman owned by Jefferson, Hemings had no power — particularly not the power to stop sexual advances.

The erasure of these important details from American history has painted a more positive portrait of this country than the reality. And it’s still happening today. President Donald Trump spews so many lies on Twitter that the platform added fact-checking labels onto his tweets.

The America I know is one rife with years of politicians lying to uphold white supremacy. It’s the country my niece already knows at age 12. And it’s why our country is in crisis today. Here are the white lies we’ve been told throughout history and the truth we rarely learn. 

WHITE LIE: Slavery ended in January 1865 through the ratification of 13th Amendment.

THE TRUTH:  Many enslaved Black Americans were not made aware of their emancipation until June 19, 1865, also known as Juneteenth or Freedom Day. It marks the day enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, received news that all slaves were free. However, even after Juneteenth many Black people were re-enslaved when Union troops returned to the North.

WHITE LIE: The 13th amendment abolished slavery in totality.

THE TRUTH: According to the 13th amendment slavery was never abolished. As it states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Thus, making American prison labor legal under the U.S. Constitution. This is modern day slavery reimagined. 

WHITE LIE: The South seceded from the Union to preserve states’ rights which started the American Civil War.

THE TRUTH: The right to continue the institution of slavery was the states’ right many southerners were looking to preserve that caused the withdrawal from the Union. Slavery was illegal in many Northern states, but wealthy and powerful southerners felt slavery was essential to their economy. They wanted to protect slaveholding, but the federal government wouldn’t overturn northern abolitionist laws. 

WHITE LIE: Abraham Lincoln was against slavery.

TRUTH: Lincoln was more concerned about the preservation of the Union than he was about the abolishment of slavery. In 1982 Lincoln wrote a letter to Hollace Greece that contained these wordsIf there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”

WHITE LIE: Christopher Columbus discovered North America.

THE TRUTH: Between his four different trips that started with one in 1492, Columbus landed on various Caribbean islands that make up the present-day Bahamas and the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Although he explored the Central and South American coasts, Columbus never reached North America, which as we know was already inhabited by Native Americans. Columbus committed horrific atrocities and decimated the population of the communities inhabiting the islands where he did land. 

WHITE LIE: Native Americans welcomed the Pilgrims at Plymouth with open arms and then celebrated their arrival with the feast we now call Thanksgiving. 

TRUTH: According to the history of the Wampanoag people, who originally inhabited the land, what we’ve been taught to believe was a peaceful feast was, in fact, a pact between the tribe and English settlers in an effort to avoid death and bloodshed. The Pilgrims were not the Wampanoag’s first encounter with Europeans. In fact, there were years of tense interaction with Europeans who spread disease and ravaged tribes long before the Pilgrims arrived. The pact, however, did not last long. The Pilgrims and other colonizers would go on to violently overtake the Wampanoag people.

WHITE LIE: Jesus was a white man. 

TRUTH: Jesus was not a European man who had blue eyes and pale skin. He was a Jewish man born out of Nazareth of the tribe of Judah. According to Joan Taylor, professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, Judaeans of that time were closest biologically to Iraqi Jews of today, who tend to have dark-brown to black hair, deep brown eyes, and olive-brown colored skin.

VICE Media Group is celebrating Juneteenth, the day all enslaved Black Americans were emancipated in the U.S., by highlighting stories important to the diaspora across VICEi-DGarage, and Refinery 29. Tune in to VICE TV for a full day of television honoring Black voices.

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