U.S. History: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

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♪ (“LAST WEEK TONIGHT” THEME PLAYS) ♪ Moving on. Our main story tonight concerns history. A subject so fascinating, we’re sometimes willing to do crazy experiments like this: REPORTER: Scientists were able to mimic Nesyamun’s voice by recreating his mouth and vocal chords with a 3-D printer. It allowed them to produce a single sound. (MURMURING) Excellent. Finally an answer to the question that scholars have asked for ages, “What would an ancient Egyptian sound like, if he orgasmed while taking anti-depressants?” But look, sadly, history isn’t always fun, weird mummy ventriloquy. It can be painful too.

As America, has recently been reminded. Because George Floyd’s murder has forced a hard national conversation about this country’s present, which is impossible to do effectively without reexamining it’s past. And unfortunately, that’s not a conversation that all American’s are well-equipped to have. Because there are some embarrassing gaps in many people’s knowledge of US history. Just look what happened a few weeks back when the president, in the midst of nation-wide Black Lives Matter protests, announced plans to hold a rally in Tulsa, on June 19th. A decision, astonishingly tone-deaf, for two key reasons. NBC REPORTER: Next Friday, June 19th, is Juneteenth, an annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the US. As for Tulsa, 99 years ago this month, in 1921, the city witnessed the Tulsa Race Massacre. One of the nation’s worst outbreaks of racial violence. Recently portrayed in HBO’s Watchmen. -(PEOPLE SCREAMING) -(AIRPLANE ENGINE ROARING) Now, the reason they’re mentioning Watchmen there, is a lot of Americans learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre for the very first time, nearly a century after it happened, from watching that show.

Basically, the night that episode airs, many white Americans went, “Holy shit, I had no idea this happened!” While, many Black Americans went, “Holy shit, white people are gonna freak the fuck out when they find out this happened.” “Debbie at work, is gonna want to have a conversation.” The coverage of that Trump rally didn’t just introduce many Americans to that massacre, but also, to the very concept of Juneteenth. The day that commemorates when Union troops informed Texas that enslaved people there must finally be freed, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation by the way.

A recent poll shows that a shocking 48 percent of Americans were either “Not at all” or, “Not very aware” of Juneteenth, which is not good! I mean, it’d be fine if nearly half of Americans were unaware of Groundhog Day, the meaningless date when an idiot dressed like goth Willy Wonka, holds up a non-clairvoyant woodchuck, whose face, somehow screams, “I have better things to do.” But Juneteenth actually means something. And that’s just one of many gaps in knowledge that some are now realizing that they have. Just watch Joy Behar try to explain why statues of George Washington should be left alone, and in doing so, actually learning something. The George Washington, besides being a founding father and a great general and somebody who was so instrumental in this union that we have, in this republic, also freed his slaves. So, if you’re gonna take somebody down, take down Thomas Jefferson, who didn’t free his slaves, No? Sunny disagrees. He didn’t free his slaves. He actually spent the last year of his life, relentlessly pursuing slaves that tried to run away. He was a horrible slave owner.

Yeah, he was. As usual, Sunny Hostin is very right, and Meghan McCain, is very there. Because, while Washington did promise to free his slaves in his will, it specified, they wouldn’t gain their freedom until his wife’s death. So, only one person was freed immediately after Washington died, out of a hundred. Also, he actually became a slave owner at just eleven years old. A fact so horrifying, it’s kind of hard to know what to do with it. At the very least, the story of him chopping down a cherry tree as a child and admitting it to his father by saying “I cannot tell a lie,” gets way less charming, if the next part is his parents saying, “Thank you for being honest George. As a reward, here are some human beings to own.” And the thing is, Joy Behar’s version of history, while distorted, is definitely more palatable especially for white people. And seeking out misleadingly comforting versions of history, is a pattern that we’ve seen again and again this year.

From the number one movie on Netflix during the protests following George Floyd’s murder being The Help, to just last week when Senator Tom Cotton said schools should lose federal funding if they teach a curriculum based on The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which brings slavery into the forefront of American history. And perhaps the most absurd disconnect was, in the wake of President Obama’s eulogy for John Lewis this week, in which Obama advocated for abolishing the filibuster if necessary to expand voting rights, Tucker Carlson had this to say.

Imagine if some greasy politician showed up at your loved one’s funeral, and started throwing around stupid partisan talking points about Senate procedure. Can you imagine that? You would be shocked if that happened. You’d probably walk out. Desecrating a funeral with campaign slogans? What kind of person would do that? Wait, what kind of person would honor a friend’s legacy by continuing to advocate for voting rights? You know what, I can think of one. John fucking Lewis would do that. And the truth is, with so many people misunderstanding our history, either by accident, or, very much on purpose, we thought tonight, it might be a good idea to talk about how the history of race in America, is currently taught in schools. What some of the gaps are, why they’re there, and how we can fill them. And let’s start with the fact, that there are no national standards for what topics or figures, students must learn about at school.

And state standards very widely. When CBS looked into it this year, it found seven states do not directly mention slavery in their state standards, only two mention white supremacy while 16 list state’s rights as a cause of the Civil War. And, we actually did a whole 21-minute piece about what is wrong with that argument but this clip explains it significantly quicker. NARRATOR: The root cause of the Civil War is clear. -What caused the Civil War was– -Slavery. The main cause, and why the South decided to secede -was for– -Slavery. NARRATOR: So why do our history textbooks, get it so wrong? Y’all don’t wanna deal with the (CENSORED) up (CENSORED) that y’all ancestors did.

Yeah. I mean, that pretty much sums it up. And it can be hard to deal with what your ancestors did. Trust me, I’m British! One of our most famous tourist attractions is a castle where we executed people for centuries, and is now filled with stolen jewels, like the Koh-I-Noor diamond, which, according to the Tower’s website was presented to Queen Victoria. And that verb is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. It was “presented,” in pretty much the same way that India was, in so much as it was present, and Britain, fucking took it. And for all the current handwringing about how any changes would politicize US history, it’s worth remembering, that the teaching of it has always been political.

After the Civil War, the battle over how history would be told in textbooks was intense. Because, you know the saying, “History is written by the winners”? The South set out to prove that wrong. One organization, called “The United Daughters of the Confederacy,” campaigned for schools to adopt textbooks that would “accord full justice to the South.” Telling librarians to write, “Unjust to the South,” on the ones that didn’t. Which is clearly absurd.

It would be like a librarian writing, “Unjust to Voldemort,” on Harry Potter one through seven. Or, “Unjust to whale,” on Moby Dick. Or, “Unjust to L. Ron Hubbard,” on Leah Remini’s Trouble Maker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology. But that impulse, to downplay the horrors of slavery, has marked how school children have learned about it, ever since. A Georgia textbook from the fifties claimed, “The master often had a barbecue or a picnic for his slaves. Then, they had a great frolic.” And look, every excuse for slavery is shitty, but, “We gave them sandwiches sometimes,” has to be one of the shittiest.

And some who learned history from books like those, couldn’t believe what they were being told at the time. Just watch this Alabama schoolteacher, revisit her fourth grade textbook, Know Alabama. “Some slaves were good workers and very obedient. Many took pride in what they did, and loved their cabins and the plantation.” As if they actually owned them. “Others were lazy, disobedient, and sometimes vicious.” I wonder what kind of slave I would have been? I wonder if I would have been one of those lazy slaves who just were not willing to work for nothing. Or disobedient because I just didn’t want to be a slave. Yeah, that contempt, is fully merited there. Because among other things, the idea that being a “lazy slave,” was a character flaw, as opposed to, a frequent act of protest against a brutally unjust system, is infuriating.

And it makes Know Alabama sound less like the title of that textbook, and more like something you’d yell at it. “No Alabama! Stop that! Bad textbook, no!” And those passages were in the standard Alabama history textbook, into the seventies. So people who read them, and may have been shaped by their content, are now in their fifties doing things like running businesses or, I don’t know, holding elected office. And while newer textbooks may not be quite that egregious, there are still problems.

Earlier this year, one historian flagged a pretty remarkable euphemism, in a current Texas schoolbook. IBRAM KENDI: This is a picture and the caption says, “Some US settlers brought slaves to Texas to help work the fields and do chores.” And, you know, I don’t think we should describe, slave labor as chores. Yeah, you’re right, we probably shouldn’t. Calling slave labor chores, is a euphemism on par with calling Hitler a best-selling author with a side hustle. Or, JFK’s assassination a bad hair day, or this, a comedy show.

And look, state standards and textbooks are just a baseline here. What happens in a classroom largely depends on teachers, who have a very difficult job, often working with scant resources, meaning that among other things, they may not be able to get updated versions of textbooks. And some work really hard to correct poor materials. But others, can actually make things even worse, with tone-deaf assignments, and classroom exercises that you may be familiar with, from seeing local news stories like these. REPORTER 2: This is the activity in question. It asks students to choose to be a slave or a slave owner. And then a write-in journal entry that describes daily activities before the Civil War. REPORTER 3: The question about slavery read… (READS PROMPT) REPORTER 4: This North Carolina grandmother couldn’t believe the assignment given to her fourth grader. GRANDMOTHER: And this game is called “Escaping Slavery.” REPORTER 4: A slavery-themed Monopoly-like game students played in elementary school. Children worked in small groups, got this freedom punch card if the group ran into trouble, the card said they’d be severely punished and sent back to the plantation to work as a slave. GRANDMOTHER: What, are they gonna hang ’em? Are they gonna kill ’em? What the fuck are you doing there? You can’t reduce a person’s freedom from slavery down to what is basically a Jimmy Johns punch card.

And just imagine what it would feel like to be a Black kid in that classroom. Or, if you don’t have to imagine, remember. Because it’s not just the history that hurts here. It’s how you’ve been made to feel while you learn it. And the frequency to which stories like those tend to crop up, may have something to do with the fact that the overwhelming majority of schoolteachers are white, and many may have grown up learning the same skewed version of history that they are now passing on. And when you take all of this together, we’re giving kids incomplete educations in history, while also doing real harm.

Because those kids grow up. Just listen to this guy from Tulsa explaining how he felt when he finally found out about that 1921 massacre that happened where he lived. When I went to OU in 1998, I was sitting in a class for African American History, and the professor was talking about this place where Black people had businesses, and had money, and had doctors and lawyers, and he said it was in Tulsa. And I– I raised my hand and I said, “No, I’m from Tulsa.” -(CROWD LAUGHING) -“That’s not accurate.” And he was talking about this massacre, riots…

And man, what are you talking about? I said I went to school on Greenwood, I’ve never heard of this ever. That’s terrible. And his school really let him down there. Think of the emotional whiplash that man must have gone through. He found out something amazing that once existed, right where he lived. Something horrible had taken it away, and that the history had been kept from him. And all of this had happened less than 100 years ago. The dinosaurs died 65 million years ago, and you would still be absolutely floored if someone only just told you about them.

“I’m sorry, there were what? Where? What do you mean everywhere? And they were how big? Some of them could fly? What happened to them? Oh, no! How the fuck is this the first time someone’s mentioning this to me?!” Look, it is pretty clear that we need to upgrade the way that we teach our history. And while I obviously don’t have time to go through all of that history right now, it might be worth going slowly through three big mistakes that many historians believe that we make, and should correct, in schools and beyond.

The first is that we don’t fully acknowledge the history of white supremacy in America. From its founding to the present day. And I know that anytime someone suggests telling children anything less than Jesus would have been best friends with Abraham Lincoln, the push back is fierce. Watch Laura Ingraham take one school board’s discussion of an anti-racist curriculum, and spin it out into a dystopian vision designed to terrify her viewers. Now every subject, every extra-curricular activity will be perverted to turn your kids into mini Ilhan Omars. They’re gonna learn that capitalism is racist, history, as conventionally taught, is racist. Literature, most of that’s racist. Patriotic songs, racist. And the Declaration and the Constitution, of course they’re racist.

Are you sensing a theme here? Now, Laura Ingraham might not seem like someone capable of following anything, apart from Black teenagers simply trying to shop at CVS. But I think she actually has picked up on a theme there. Because seeing as she brought up the Constitution, let’s talk about it. Because that document is a lot of things, genuinely revolutionary, and the foundation of an improbably long-lived democracy.

But it’s also infused with, and inextricably linked to slavery, and a legacy of racial inequality. From the three-fifths clause, to the fugitive slave cause. The constitution both codified slavery, and made it harder for individuals to escape it. And the fact the Constitution is infused with racism does not mean it’s canceled. It’s not a YouTuber who’s just now realized it was wrong to do black face for 14 years. And it definitely doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t learn about it. But they should be taught to see it as an imperfect document with imperfect authors, who both extolled the ideas of freedom for all, while at the same time, codifying slavery. And that is possible to do. Kids can understand that things can be racist and also other things. The Constitution can be revolutionary, and also racist. Movies can be romantic and also racist. Children’s books can be charming, and also racist. Broadcasters can be incredibly successful and also racist. And if kids are taught an incomplete history, they’ll either never get the full story, or when they do, they don’t have the framework to understand how the pieces fit together.

Here is one professor explaining how hard it can be for his students learning the whole truth about Thomas Jefferson. What that child’s then gonna do, is say, “Wait a minute, why didn’t I know this before? I’ve been running around here singing Thomas Jefferson’s praises, and I didn’t realize that he’s the R. Kelly of his time.” REPORTER 5: So while it may be uncomfortable, he says you have to be honest. I– I swear Ohio didn’t suffer from Underground Railroad-itis, right? You ask if– Who would have been– Who would have been for the Underground Railroad, right, in class? And every– every white hand goes up. I’m like, look, if all of y’all would have been down for the Underground Railroad… that (CENSORED) wouldn’t have been underground, right? There would have been no need for it.

Okay, first of all, it says a lot about Jefferson that if you went back in time, explained to him who R. Kelly was, and told him he was being compared to him, the child pornography charges would not be the number one reason that he’d be insulted by the comparison. But that professor makes a really good point there. The less you know about history, the easier that it is to imagine you’d always be on the right side of it. Because the truth it, the history of America is a history of change in America that badly does not want to be changed. And that actually brings us to the second common mistake that we make… Too often, U.S. History is reduced down to, there was slavery, uh, then there was a Civil War, then there wasn’t slavery anymore, then there was the Civil Rights movement, then there wasn’t racism anymore. Just a smooth, steady upward arc. But the moment on either side of those landmark eras complicate the hell out of that arc.

Because they were filled with white hostility, and ugly backsliding. Take the century between the end of the Civil War, and the Civil Rights act, which is often glossed over, which should probably be taught a lot more thoroughly. Begins with reconstruction, a dozen or so years of real promise when very basically, the South was forced to redraw their constitutions and permit the registration of Black voters. That’s right, Black men in the south were voting in the 1860’s and ’70s. When they fought for the voting rights act in the 1960’s, they were fighting to get back something that they already had. The effects of reconstruction were almost immediate, with an estimated 2,000 Black men serving in elected office during that era. Including a number in Congress. And just look at these guys. A-plus achievements, A-plus-plus facial hair there. And sure, you might think you can grow your mustache into a beard, try it.

You fucking can’t. But in response to that progress, white people pushed back and pushed back hard. The KKK was founded, 2,000 Black people were lynched, and by 1877, the South had regained local control. Here is a crazy story that you might not know. In 1898, the multiracial city government in Wilmington, North Carolina, became the target of… In which a mob of up to 2,000 armed white men killed at least 60 Black residents, and replaced the city’s alderman with white supremacists.

And if this is the first time that you are learning about the only coup on American soil, you’re not alone! Because what happened there is usually either not taught at all, or, as the author of a book on that massacre points out, taught very, very misleadingly. Here’s from a 1949 textbook. Quote, “A number of Blacks were jailed for starting a riot and a new white administration took over Wilmington’s government,” end quote. Yeah, that’s it. And that is not just denying what happened, it’s even worse, it’s placing the blame for it on the victims. Technically, you shouldn’t even call it a history book, so much as… And Wilmington wasn’t even the midpoint of that century of backsliding. And the Laura Ingraham’s of the world will probably say, “Yeah, that’s all ugly, but, in a sign of American exceptionalism, the Civil Rights movement ended all of that when Martin Luther King’s dream came true.” And that is the version that most Americans are taught in school, but it leaves a lot out.

In fact, take the March on Washington. That wasn’t actually its full name, it was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And the economic justice part of it was front-and-center. King actually grew more outspoken about that issue in the years that followed. And King himself understood why it was harder to make progress on that front. It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters. (CROWD CHATTING IN AGREEMENT) It didn’t cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote! Now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars, and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power! Yeah, it turns out that Martin Luther King had more than one dream. And one of them was about wealth redistribution. So while I know it’s easy to distort King’s full legacy down to that one soaring speech, point to the cast of This is Us, and say, “See, we did it everyone, everything is fixed now.” The truth is, the Civil Rights Movement was longer, messier, more radical, and crucially, was thwarted in more of its aims than many of us were taught in school.

And that actually brings us to the final point here, which is that… And those dots are very much there. Look at the black-white wage and wealth gaps. They are both larger now than they were when King gave that speech. And our housing and education systems even in liberal cities, like New York and L.A. are still shamefully segregated. And if you don’t teach history properly, all you see is those effects, and not the causes.

When the truth is, you can draw a straight line from the post-Civil War return of plantation land to former Confederates, through the massive transfers of land via the Homestead Act, mostly to white individuals, through the growth of the suburbs in the 20th century, where, redlining kept Black people from moving into white neighborhoods throughout the country. In fact, just listen to this woman in Levittown, Pennsylvania, explain her objections to a Black family moving to town in 1957, with some real honesty. We liked the advantages that Levittown seem to offer in comparison to other cities, and we understood that it was gonna be all white. We’re very happy to buy a home here. INTERVIEWER: Do you think a negro family moving here will affect the community as a whole? Definitely. The whole trouble with this integration business is that in the end, it probably will end up with mixing socially. And you will have– Well, I think their aim is mixed marriages and becoming equal with the whites.

Wow. It is always weird to hear someone, whether or not they look like summer casual Betty Crocker, frame human beings being treated equally as a negative. It’s like hearing someone say, “The whole trouble with putting graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows together is that we might end up with s’mores.” Yeah! Exactly. That’s a good thing. Only a monster wouldn’t want that. And it might not surprise you to see that someone was incredibly racist in the 1950s. But one of the problems with the way that we teach history is that too often it sort of trails off after the civil rights movement, and when you skip over the past half century, you don’t get to see the protests by which white supremacy, instead of disappearing, merely adapted. And perhaps nobody made that protest clearer than Lee Atwater, a top Republican campaign strategist who worked for, among others, Ronald Reagan and George H.W.

Bush. Here he is spelling out the whole game in 1981, and I’m gonna warn you, you’re about to hear the N-word a lot. Holy shit. Now, obviously he’s a little too comfortable with that word. You tend to only hear it come out that smoothly in either Tarantino movies or online forums in which white children play video games together. But that is a pretty concise history of a certain thread in politics for the past half century. Which brings us all the way up to the present day, literally the present Wednesday which is when the president of the United States, in announcing a rollback of an Obama era rule under the Fair Housing Act, sent a tweet in which he informed… And that is basically a campaign promise crafted by Lee Atwater and designed to win over this woman who’s probably dead by now, and what’s notable there is not that Trump’s being racist which is not remotely surprising.

It’s how neatly he fits in to a systemic racism that’s been baked into this country from the beginning and which will still be here when he is gone. And if kids aren’t taught this, what chance do they have to understand what’s happening right now? And obviously, you’d need to calibrate to each age group. No one is suggesting playing that Lee Atwater tape to third graders, but it’s a bit like sex ed. You don’t skip ahead to ejaculation, which, by the way, is a pretty good sex tip for anyone with a penis, but we also don’t spend the first semester of sex ed teaching kids that we all dropped out of the sky by fucking storks because they’ll later have to unlearn that.

And I know that addressing mistakes like these will not be easy. There’ll be bad faith charges that doing so is political, although I would argue no more political than the choices we’ve made to teach history the way that we do now. And, no doubt, some parents will instinctively resist this. Back in 2010 when Texas was reviewing its state’s standards, one parent made it very clear that the main history he wanted his kids taught was that of “American Exceptionalism.” The one thing I want my kids to know when they get out of school about America is that the worst day in America beats the best day in any other country.

(APPLAUSE) That seems pretty easy. It seems like it becomes this great focus on the negative history of America. Instead of saying, okay for instance, slavery. Instead of– You know, looking at it in a positive light that Americans overcame something as evil as slavery, and that we’re still a great nation today should be a testament to the kind of American spirit that exists in this country. Okay. So, there’s a lot to unpack there. First, you’re worst day in America really depends on who you are and importantly when you are. There’s a reason, for instance, Marty McFly was white. Because Black people don’t generally hang around with John C. Calhoun look-alikes who are obsessed with going back to the 1950s. And second, Americans did not overcome slavery. Certain Americans overcame certain other Americans and slavery was ended, but whether it was overcome is very much another matter. And, look, while I understand any parent wanting their kids to be taught something inspiring, what he’s essentially asking for there is for his kids to be misinformed and that’s not gonna serve them well when they grow up.

It’s not gonna serve any of us well because ignoring the history you don’t like is not a victimless act, and a history of America that ignores white supremacy is a white supremacist history of America which matters. Because while it might seem obvious, history isn’t over yet. It’s still being written. And you know who understood that? John Lewis. He’s someone who’s very much a part of American history, and he knew the importance of drawing a line from the past through the present. That might be why one of the last things he did before he died was visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington.

He even wrote an op-ed to be published posthumously, which speaks directly to what we’ve been talking about tonight. Just listen to this extract read by Morgan Freeman. MORGAN FREEMAN: You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent has stood in your shoes. Through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Exactly. History, when taught well, shows us how to improve the world. But history when taught poorly falsely claims there is nothing to improve, so we have to teach it better and continue to learn it because it’s important for all of us to listen to the voices of history whether they are a call to action, truly horrific, or a sad mummy orgasm.

(MURMURING) Still excellent. That’s our show. Thank you so much for watching. We’re off next week. Back August 16th. Good night..

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