In 2010, Virginia gave a new history textbook to its fourth-graders: Our Virginia: Past and Present. Written by Joy Masoff—an author, but not a trained historian—she deals with the usual founding facts of commonwealth history: Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, Thomas Jefferson, and the Revolution.
But when Masoff gets to the Civil War, she goes off the rails. “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in Confederate ranks,” she writes, “including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” Historians in the state were appalled. Not only was there little evidence of mass voluntary participation among blacks in the Confederate war effort, but the Jackson line is pure fantasy. In fact, Masoff copied the claim from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that insists on the reality of black Confederate soldiers, and whose in-house historian, Charles Kelly Barrow, argued the point in a book called Black Confederates.
Mainstream historians dismiss the claim, but it’s easy to see how it persists. In a world where black soldiers willingly fought for the Confederacy, your beliefs are vindicated. Suddenly, the Confederate cause is noble—a fight for freedom against invaders, not a struggle in defense of slavery. Or, as Yale historian David Blight told the Washington Post, “This isn't just about the legitimacy of the Confederacy, it's about the legitimacy of the emancipation itself.”
History education doesn’t matter because of particular names and dates; it matters because history is one way we understand ourselves and our place in the world. If the Sons of Confederate Veterans believe in the myth of the black Confederate, it’s because they also believe in the nobility of their predecessors, and the two are connected. Likewise, if historians want to strike Masoff’s sentence from the record (which they eventually did), it’s because they’re committed to giving kids a fuller—and sometimes unflattering—story of Virginia’s history.
But history has always been a clash for control of the narrative—a place where we fight to define our identity. Given the stakes, conflict is inevitable, even when the tweaks are minor. Take Advanced Placement United States history. A university-style course for ambitious high-schoolers, it’s managed by the College Board, which prepares the year-end test and issues guidelines for teaching the course. Last month, the College Board released a new “curriculum framework” to help teachers shape material and prepare their students for the test. “In line with college and university U.S. history survey courses’ increased focus on early and recent American history and decreased emphasis on other areas,” explains the College Board, “the AP U.S. History course expands on the history of the Americas from 1491 to 1607 and from 1980 to the present.”
The particular change is a greater focus on women and minorities, with thematic questions like “How have gender, class, ethnic, religious, regional, and other group identities changed in different eras?” and “How and why have moral, philosophical, and cultural values changed in what would become the United States?” At the end of the course, students are expected to do things like “Explain how conceptions of group identity and autonomy emerged out of cultural interactions between colonizing groups, Africans, and American Indians in the colonial era” and “Explain how the U.S. involvement in global conflicts in the 20th century set the stage for domestic social changes.”
History teachers aside, most of the rest of the world shrugged. But conservatives noticed, and they were furious. The framework, resolved the Republican National Committee, is a “radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”
“Instead of striving to build a ‘City upon a Hill,’ as generations of students have been taught, the colonists are portrayed as bigots who developed ‘a rigid racial hierarchy’ that was in turn derived from ‘a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority,’ ” wrote conservative groups American Principles in Action and Concerned Women for America in a joint open letter to the College Board. “The new Framework continues its theme of oppression and conflict by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny from a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent to something that ‘was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.’ ”