Who Controls the Heroes

Common Courage Press -
Political Literacy Course, October 12/13, 1999

History's Heroes, Part 1:
Who Controls the Heroes Controls the Present

Heroes can provide inspiration. But James Loewen's "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" provides a powerful warning: how heroes' stories are told--or remain untold--shapes our perception not only of history but of justice and the society we live in. Much has been made of this point with regard to Christopher Columbus, too much to add new comment here. But other historical figures bask--or suffer--from agendas behind today's retelling.

Take Helen Keller as one example. Loewen writes that all students he has encountered knew she was blind and deaf; many knew personal details of her life. A few said she was a "humanitarian," but few knew of her life's work as a radical socialist. "Keller's commitment to socialism stemmed from her experienceÖ Through research she learned that blindness was not distributed randomly throughout the population but was concentrated in the lower class. Men who were poor might be blinded in industrial accidents or by inadequate medical care; poor women who became prostitutes faced the additional danger of syphilitic blindnessÖ Keller's research was not just book-learning: 'I have visited the sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it'."

Loewen continues, "At the time she became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious. Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity--this time outraged. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence now emphasized her handicap. Columnists charged that she had no independent sensory input and was in thrall to those who fed her information. Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who wrote that Keller's 'mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development'."

Loewen notes that how heroes are portrayed can sometimes serve as an index to white racism in our society. He recounts the case of John Brown, the radical white abolitionist, whose actions in two incidents, at Pottawatomie, Kansas and Harpers Ferry, Virginia, are discussed in today's textbooks. Loewen cites one account of Brown's 1859 Harpers Ferry raid that describes Brown's attempt to start a slave rebellion in Virginia that would spread to the South: "On October 16, 1859, Brown and eighteen of his men captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry.Ö He and his men were captured by a force of marines. Brown was brought to trial and convicted of treason against Virginia, murder, and criminal conspiracy. He was hanged on December 2, 1859."

Missing from the textbooks is the fact that he became a moral force prior to his impending execution, saying, "Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done."

While Brown's contemporaries knew him to be sane, "After 1890 textbook authors inferred Brown's madness from his plan, which," Loewen stated, "was admittedly farfetched.ÖWe must recognize that the insanity with which historians have charged John Brown was never psychological. It was ideological. Brown's actions made no sense to textbook writers between 1890 and about 1970. To make no sense is to be crazy."

Loewen shows many other portrayals of heroes throughout our textbooks that leave out their radical positions. In describing the anti-Vietnam war movement, textbooks "leave out all the memorable quotations of the era. Martin Luther King, Jr., the first major leader to come out against the war, opposed it in his trademark cadences: 'We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their cropsÖ. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.' No textbook quotes King. Even more famous was the dissent of Muhammad Ali, then the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Ali refused induction into the military, for which his title was stripped from him, and said, 'No Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger'.' "


History's Heroes, Part 2:
How Their Portrayal Affects the Way We Think

It's not just the voices of justice whose words are omitted or placed in a context that serves the powerful. Some historical figures get praise where none is due. Loewen notes that President Woodrow Wilson is often credited with the progressive era reform of women's suffrage. But "although women did receive the right to vote during Wilson's administration, the president was at first unsympathetic. He had suffragists arrested; his wife detested them. Public pressure, aroused by hunger strikes and other actions of the movement, convinced Wilson that to oppose women's suffrage was politically unwise. Textbooks typically fail to show the interrelationship between the hero and the people. By giving credit to the hero, authors tell less than half the story."

Writing about textbooks, Loewen comments, "authors cannot bear to reveal anything bad about our heroes." An unmentioned example he notes is that "almost half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveowners. Ö Textbooks canonize Patrick Henry for his 'Give me liberty or give me death' speech. Not one [of the twelve textbooks Loewen examines] tells us that eight months after delivering the speech he ordered 'diligent patrols' to keep Virginia slaves from accepting the British offer of freedom to those who would join their side. Henry wrestled with the contradiction, exclaiming, 'Would anyone believe I am the master of slaves of my own purchase!' Almost no one would today because only two of the twelve textbooks Ö even mention the inconsistency."

Much about Thomas Jefferson's slave holdings has come to light as DNA tests have identified some of his descendants as being born to one of his slaves. "Textbooks stress that Jefferson was a humane master, privately tormented by slavery and opposed to its expansion, not the type to destroy families by selling slaves. In truth, by 1820, Jefferson had become an ardent advocate of the expansion of slavery to the western territories. And he never let his ambivalence about slavery affect his private life. Jefferson was an average master who had his slaves whipped and sold into the Deep South as examples, to induce slaves to obey. By 1822, Jefferson owned 267 slaves. During his long life, of hundreds of different slaves he owned, he freed only three, and five more at his death--all blood relatives of his."

The acts of what might only be called anti-heroes are often sanitized as well. One shocking photograph in Loewen's book shows a lynching in progress with the victim being burned alive. Perpetrators are standing posed, smiling at the camera. Writes Loewen:

"Lynch mobs often posed for the camera. They showed no fear of being identified because they knew no white jury would convict them. 'Mississippi: Conflict and Change,' a revisionist state history textbook I co-wrote, was rejected by the Mississippi State Textbook Board because it included this photograph. At the trial that ensued, a rating committee member stated that material like this would make it hard for a teacher to control her students, especially a 'white lady teacher' in a predominantly black class. At this point the judge took over the questioning. 'Didn't lynchings happen in Mississippi?' he asked. Yes, admitted the rating committee member, but it was all so long ago, why dwell on it now? 'It's a history book, isn't it?' asked the judge, who eventually ruled in the book's favor. Ö I hasten to reassure that no classroom riots resulted from our book or this photograph."

The effects of twisting history in these ways are disturbing. To cite one example, Loewen writes:

"The superstructure of racism has long outlived the social structure of slavery that generated it. The following passage from Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone With the Wind,' written in the 1930s, shows racism alive and well in that decade. The narrator is interpreting Reconstruction: 'The former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild--either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.' White supremacy permeates Mitchell's romantic bestseller."

Nonetheless, "when the American Library Association asked library patrons to name the best book in the library, 'Gone With the Wind' won an actual majority against all other books ever published!"

The year of the American Library Association poll: 1988.


Howard Zinn said of Loewen's work, "Every teacher, every student of history, every citizen should read this book."

Common Courage Press