ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: History and truth still matter

This editorial was originally published in the The Baltimore Sun.

“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know,” President Joe Biden said last week from Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the 100th anniversary of a targeted massacre of Black residents there by their white neighbors.

Many Americans know little, if anything, about those events. They were never taught.

America has a shameful history on race. From building the country on the free labor of enslaved people kidnapped from Africa, to snatching land from Native Americans, the U.S. has long treated people of color as less than human. The remnants of earlier oppression continue to exist today, in subtler forms of institutional racism that still hold back African American people and other groups.

This sordid past makes many people uncomfortable; it’s something they’d rather not talk about. Even worse, some people want to act like it doesn’t exist at all in an erasure of history. We saw it for years regarding Tulsa, and we’re seeing it again now, in the backlash to New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and her 1619 project series that looked at the legacy of slavery in America.

The project ran in the Times Magazine in August 2019; it was widely acclaimed and won the journalist a Pulitzer Prize for her introductory commentary. It also ignited a barrage of criticism from people who couldn’t handle the truth. School systems moved to ban its teaching in the classroom and, in the latest saga, Ms. Hannah-Jones was denied the prestigious Knight Foundation-endowed chair in race and investigative journalism with tenure at the University of North Carolina because certain conservatives disliked the project and a separate essay she wrote advocating for reparations. Instead, she was offered a five-year contract with the possibility of tenure later, unlike others who previously held the position.

The message is clear: Some only like their history whitewashed. Textbooks have long glossed over slavery or depicted the enslaved as happy and content. Some plantation tours don’t acknowledge slavery at all. Then there are those who deny the Holocaust and downplay the Japanese internment camps created during World War II.

The rewriting of history is nothing short of cowardly, and it’s allowed the vestiges of slavery to fester. The rest of us must stand up to revisionists by pushing back against their false reality and demanding the truth regarding the country’s legacy. Two hundred people signed onto a letter in the publication The Root slamming Ms. Hannah-Jones’ tenure track denial. In a separate letter that ran in a full-page ad in the News & Observer newspaper, 1,619 University of North Carolina alumni also expressed outrage.

There’s no guarantee that there will be a new vote on Ms. Hannah-Jones tenure, but the public pressure has made it clear that history and truth still matter to many.

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