From Mark I. West, Professor and Chair of the Department of English, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in response to “Don’t whitewash American history,” (Viewpoint, Sept. 28):
When I read Leonard Pitts’s column, I flashed back to my high school days in the early 1970s. I attended a high school in Jefferson County, Colo. the very county that Pitts writes about in his column. As Pitts explains, a member of the school board in Jefferson County is demanding that Jefferson County’s history teachers only cover the “positive aspects” of American history.
I am so grateful that my high school history teacher was not required to distort American history for political purposes. He introduced us to the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, and he used this concept to help us understand the complexities of American history.
For example, when he taught us about Martin Luther King, he helped us see how King’s rise to greatness is inextricably linked to his struggle against the societal racism, such as the Jim Crow laws. By teaching us about the Jim Crow laws, my history teacher helped us appreciate one of America’s great heroes.
My history teacher also taught us that even our heroes sometimes made mistakes, but that doesn’t discount the important things that they accomplished. When we studied the role that President Franklin Roosevelt played during World War II, for example, our teacher told us that Roosevelt condoned the Japanese internment camps. However, he also talked about the leadership role Roosevelt played in combating anti-Semitism. I remember in my freshman year at college I had to write a paper about a hero, and I wrote about Roosevelt even though I completely disagreed with his attitude toward Japanese Americans.
As the years went by, I eventually earned a Ph.D. in American Studies. I trace my love of American history and culture back to my high school history teacher. To this day, I still draw on his Yin and Yang approach to understanding the history of the United States.
To those people who want to expose our students to just one side of our nation’s history, I urge them give some thought to this Yin and Yang approach to history. Students cannot understand what makes America great without also understanding the struggles and tensions that shaped the actions of our forefathers and foremothers.
If we do not explain to our students the problems and realities that our ancestors faced, we would end up presenting American history as a series of sound bites taken out of context and signifying nothing.