How Alternative Facts Create Alternate History

February 1, 2017, 8:04 PM UTC

Today begins the annual month-long celebration called known as African American History Month. For many of us, it’s our busy season. Of course, I mean teachers.

African American History Month is one long teachable moment for dedicated teachers, many of whom have been hamstrung by underwhelming curricula, inadequate source materials, or lukewarm administrators. So when writer, poet, and educator Eve Ewing asked her Twitter followers this simple question on her excellent feed, it became an interesting exercise in student regret:

If you could choose one historical struggle that many people don’t know about and have it be taught in schools, what would it be?

As the answers came pouring in (see below), it was clear that many people felt that they and their communities would be better off now if only they’d learned what really had happened back then.

“I asked the question because several of my friends in Chicago were involved in the campaign to get reparations for those who were tortured over the course of many years by police commander Jon Burge,” Ewing told me by email. Burge was a notorious police commander who was fired in 1993 for torturing a confession from a suspect, just one incident in a nearly 20-year reign of systematic abuse of black citizens. (I confess with no small amount of embarrassment that I had never heard of this case.) The city of Chicago issued a “reparations resolution” and detailed apology, which you can read here.

But the reparations campaign had come with a twist: In addition to monetary compensation, advocates had asked the Chicago Public Schools to add mandatory curriculum content about Burge, the pain he’d caused and the legacy of the case. And that had been on Ewing’s mind. “I have learned that people, especially white people, feel very shocked and even lied to or betrayed when they learn later in life about something they feel they should have learned as a child, especially human rights atrocities,” she said. “It makes you realize that the narratives we receive about history are often very one-sided, or at best tend to represent the point-of-view of those who have the power to do the telling.”

You can read the responses to Ewing’s Twitter query here, but here are some standouts from her crowdsourced curriculum:

All of the suggestions were eye-opening, most pitched with real passion.

The alternate history lessons led me to a bigger question: What is history for? Like so many people, I’ve been haunted by some of our ugliest historical moments: The images of grinning picnickers standing near lynched bodies, the grim scenes inside of internment camps, the dead at Wounded Knee. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of that. But history is nothing if not personal, which is why restoring big parts of our collective story is a noble exercise in inclusion — especially since we’re all on the wrong side of something. To survive the rough spots, we’ll also need a strong dose of courage and forgiveness. Maybe that’s something we can all teach each other.

On Point

The ACLU has joined start-up accelerator Y CombinatorThe ACLU has emerged as one of the most potent voices of opposition to the Trump Administration, earning the support of many Silicon Valley luminaries who publicly contributed to their recent efforts to help immigrants and green card holders affected by the Muslim ban. And now, the 96-year-old organization has earned a right to the Valley hive mind as well. "The ACLU has always been important, but has a particularly important role right now,” said a statement posted on the Y Combinator blog. The statement further assured that the ACLU will have “full access to the Y Combinator network and community, and they will present at Demo Day in March."Fortune

A green card holder dies a day after being prevented from re-entering the U.S.
Of all the heartbreaking stories to come out of the Muslim ban, this one hits the hardest: After the mother of an Iraqi-born former American serviceman was denied re-entry to the U.S. where she has lived since 1995, she fell ill and later died. Mike Hager and his family had been resettled in the U.S. after spending years in a refugee camp; in gratitude he’d returned to Iraq, working with U.S. Special Forces as an interpreter. Hager’s family had been returning from a visit to Iraq, but he was the only one allowed through. “I went with my family, I came back by myself. They destroyed our family,” he said.

You know it’s bad when book publishers are mad
Book publishers and authors around the world are protesting the immigration ban in some vocal and creative ways. Click through for some of the responses, but here’s my personal favorite: U.K. publisher Comma Press announced plans to only translate writers from the seven countries targeted in the ban in 2018. “If the only narrative America wants to export right now is the narrative of hate, then we need to look elsewhere. We need to consciously turn our backs on the circus that America is descending into,” said Comma CEO Ra Page in a statement.
Electric Literature

Study finds premature death rates improving for people of color, increasing for white people
According to the National Institute of Health, premature death (in the 25-64 age range) has declined markedly for black, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islanders Americans, due largely to fewer deaths from cancer, heart disease, and HIV. Where this is a public health success story, the news for white people and Alaskan Natives and Native Americans is troubling. The increase in their early deaths is attributed largely to drug overdoses, suicide, and liver disease. The youngest are hardest hit;  25-30 year old whites and AN/NAs have seen up to a 5% annual increase in early death, comparable to the increase observed at the height of the U.S. AIDS epidemic.
National Institute of Health

Feel good about this: A writer’s suggestion has now fed thousands of public school kids
If you’d never relied on public school lunch, it might never have occurred to you. But public school kids whose struggling parents have fallen behind on their lunch accounts -- even low-income families have to pay something -- are often humiliated in front of their peers, or simply go hungry. "A cool thing you can do today is try to find out which of your local schools have kids with overdue lunch accounts and pay them off," tweeted Ashley C. Ford last December. Her 66,000 followers got on the case, and have now raised over $100,000 to pay off school lunch debts, often just a couple of kids at a time.

The Woke Leader

Donald Trump: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice”
Yes, Frederick Douglass has done an amazing job. He really has. That dramatic escape from slavery was tremendous, his rise as an orator and abolitionist leader also great. (For more Trump comments, click here.) Most people don’t know, but many people are saying, that he was the most photographed person of his time, sitting for more portraits than even Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a president, so that’s huge. Douglass wanted to ensure a more noble and accurate portrayal of black citizens at a pivotal time in history. Looks like it worked!

White people are becoming radicalized online and nobody is talking about it
What do you do when you have white friends who will invite black friends to holiday supper yet still threaten vehicular manslaughter if confronted with a Black Lives Matters protester? This is the cognitive disconnect expressed by writer Johnny Silvercloud, who worries that the vague sense of loss many white Americans feel is being morphed into a violent form of entitlement. “America will talk all day about radical Islam and radical black speakers and writers.  No one ever thinks to talk about white radicalization, which is a unique danger we’ve not seen on this planet before.”

The teens who started the movement at Standing Rock
Saul Elbein has a beautifully reported profile of the Lakota Sioux teens, struggling to survive an existence devoid of hope and punctuated by suicide, who found strength and meaning as leaders in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. It started with a prayer camp, and grew into a movement. “Lakota culture is effectively run by the old — traditionally young people are supposed to apologize before they even speak in front of elders — so for the youths to take it upon themselves to lead a movement was a radical act,” he writes. “The youths came to believe that the Dakota pipeline was not only a threat to their drinking water but also a harbinger of the larger environmental crisis their generation was set to inherit.”
New York Times


There is not, beneath the sky, an enemy to filial affection so destructive as slavery. It had made my brothers and sisters strangers to me; it converted the mother that bore me, into a myth; it shrouded my father in mystery, and left me without an intelligible beginning in the world.
—Frederick Douglass

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