By Tom Robotham

Last month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning public-college courses that “distort” historical events. When I read this news, I couldn’t help noting the irony. The American South, after all, has a very long track record of distorting history.

This became especially clear to me when I moved to Norfolk in 1991, and mentioned to a neighbor that I had just published an illustrated history of the Civil War. 

“I hope you made it clear that the war was never about slavery,” my neighbor said. 

The fact is, the conflict was entirely about that issue. Southern leaders during the Civil War era made no bones about this. Mississippi’s declaration of secession, for example, asserts: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” (Emphasis added.) The declarations by other Southern states are equally forthright. 

You can’t get much clearer than that. And yet, in spite of this, generations of Southerners from the late 19th century through the mid-20th were taught that slavery was a non-issue and that slaves were actually happy until Northern troublemakers started putting crazy ideas in their heads.

Not that distortions of history were limited to the South. As a child growing up in New York, I was presented with a slightly more accurate view of the Civil War, but I was nevertheless conditioned to believe that our “Founding Fathers” were flawless demigods and that our nation’s history is a story of pure and virtuous triumph in the name of freedom. 

I credit my father for guiding me as I grew older into a more nuanced way of thinking—and after him, various professors who deepened my understanding of our nation’s complexities and contradictions. In time, I came to recognize the dangers of oversimplifying history from any perspective. Thus, the tendency of some on today’s left to dismiss Abraham Lincoln as a “racist” is as troubling to me as Gone with the Wind is. The former view judges Lincoln’s 19th century opinions by 21st century standards, while the latter—which had a big impact on Southerners’ sense of history—utterly ignores the horrors of slavery. (For more on the latter, see Melvin B. Tolson’s seminal 1939 essay, “Gone with the Wind is More Dangerous than Birth of a Nation.”)

THIS SPRING, while teaching a course called Perspectives in American Studies, I did my best to encourage students to grapple with all of this. 

The course was organized around various themes in American Studies, an interdisciplinary approach to examining our nation’s history and culture. Among the themes were Nature in the “New World,” Religious Diversity, Individualism and Community, Violence in America, the Immigrant Experience, and, of course, our Racial Divide. 

I continually emphasized the fact that many of these themes are interrelated—how, for example, nature and religion became intertwined in the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and how the myth of “rugged individualism” grew out of a romantic reimagining of the frontier experience. 

Presumably, DeSantis would have been OK with most of this material, although he would probably object to my characterization of “rugged individualism” as a myth. My response is that labeling it as such isn’t a smear. It’s simply an acknowledgment that the idea of rugged individualism—emphasized in tales about Daniel Boone and young Abe Lincoln, for instance, not mention countless movies, from Shane to Rambo—has long been an integral part of our national narrative and that its effects on our society have been profound. Alexis de Tocqueville—whose book Democracy in America remains remarkably timely 188 years after it was written—believed, for example, that Americans’ love of individualism might eventually erode a sense of community in this country. That this has come to pass seems indisputable to me. (See “In Search of Excellence,” my essay that appeared last month in this space.) At any rate, calling it a myth is not a new idea. In the 1950s, for example, historian Daniel Boorstin underscored the extent to which the role of individualism in the settling of the frontier had been exaggerated and that group cooperation had been key to the process. 

Had DeSantis monitored my class, however, he almost certainly would have objected to my unit on race in America. Among the assigned readings were two essays from the 1619 Project, an examination of American history through the lens of the Black American experience. We also screened and discussed Ava DuVernay’s brilliant documentary 13th, which illustrates with stunning clarity the validity of Critical Race Theory, a term that’s widely used but poorly understood. CRT is based on the idea that racism isn’t just a matter of individual bigotry but is baked into our institutions. DuVernay’s film exemplifies this fact by examining the consequences of a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime…”  It explains how, during the Jim Crow era, Black men were routinely arrested for such “crimes” as “loitering,” then imprisoned and put to work as a way of keeping them “in their place” and shoring up an economy that had long relied on slave labor.  More importantly, it shows how this racial discrimination has persisted through the “war on drugs” and the explosive growth of the prison-industrial complex, which for years has provided labor to many American corporations. 

I don’t know how any thoughtful person could read these essays or watch this film and fail to see the reality that racism remains systemic in our country. 

That said, it’s not my job to tell students what to think. Rather, it’s my responsibility to encourage them to think for themselves. Thus, regardless of the topic at hand, I ask them to share their reactions to an assigned text or film—then challenge them with follow-up questions.  In our discussion of a book called Strain of Violence, for instance, which examines the history of vigilantism and mob violence in America, I asked them to consider the January 6th insurrection in the context of the book. 

“I think the Democrats wanted that to happen,” one student blurted out. My initial thought was, so youre a fan of Tucker Carlson? But I didn’t say that. I simply asked him what evidence he had for his assertion. He had none, of course. It was just something he had heard. At that point, I reminded the class of the importance of evaluating sources and seeking facts, rather than just accepting claims.

MIGHT ANOTHER PROFESSOR handle discussions differently? Quite likely so. Each of us sees the world through our own lens—and one could therefore argue that all historical narratives are “distorted” to some degree. The best we can do is strive for truth, based on thoughtful consideration of the evidence. 

At the end of the course, I asked students to reflect on our wide-ranging examination of the American experience. They’d seen evidence of this country at its best and its worst. My own view, which most students seemed to share, is that a good citizen must try, continually, to see the whole story in historical context—the good, the bad and the ugly—just as a good person takes stock of his or her strengths, while also owning up to flaws and resolving to work on them. 

People like DeSantis, by contrast, argue that if students are exposed to the whole story, they will begin to hate America. In other words, they favor the kind of “history” that is taught in totalitarian regimes. 

As someone who has been studying and reflecting upon our national history and culture for 50 years, I have more faith in the process than DeSantis appears to. Yes, my immersion in the subject has forced me to confront grim realities, from the Trail of Tears to the practice of lynching (the subject of my master’s thesis) to the lies that were told to justify wars in Vietnam and Iraq. But it has also exposed me to stories that exemplify the glorious possibilities of the American experiment, from the drafting of the Declaration of Independence to the Stonewall uprising. Indeed, I don’t know how one can read the essays of John Muir, visit a National Park, watch old film clips of Jackie Robinson, listen to the music of Duke Ellington, or screen any documentary by Ken Burns and not feel a sense of fascination with our history and hope for the future. My sense of hope only begins to flag when people like DeSantis promote ignorance. Then again, when he does, it only strengthens my desire to continue doing what I do—and to try to do it better.