How to Teach History

Eesha Rao '22
Harvard historian Donald Yacovone said, “white supremacy is a toxin. The older history textbooks were like syringes that injected the toxin of white supremacy into the mind of many generations of Americans.” Regardless of whether it is because of our history textbooks, our history curriculums, or even our history teachers, it is overwhelmingly obvious that we, the American youth, do not receive an adequate education in our history classrooms. Whether it is an Advanced Placement class or just part of the school curriculum is irrelevant, because no matter the type of class, there is still so much that goes untaught. There is a big, bright spotlight placed on the white Eurocentric point of view, and because of this, African American history, Native American history, all colored people history in general is left to collect dust on a shelf in a section of the library that is rarely visited. It is rarely taught authentically; it is usually told through the eyes of their white saviors. We have all heard countless stories where the white colonizer is portrayed as the hero. He basks in his glory because he saved the poor, disorganized Native Americans or the poor, disorganized Indians  (who, although this may be hard to believe, are not the same people) from themselves by teaching them about pants and monotheism. Goody! Leg holes and a singular God, consider me enlightened. 
Now, who comes to mind when you think: white man, ship, colonized and murdered a people who did nothing but slightly inconvenience him by existing at the same time as he did on their own land which he invaded for a country on the other side of the world? That is correct, it is Christopher Columbus. Columbus did not discover America. The land was already there and already populated. He did, however, get so tired of a white lady’s cooking that he was willing to fall off the face of the Earth to find spices. But sure, why not dedicate a day to a man who got so turned around on his route to India that he ended up on the other side of the world. But, because many people see Columbus as a hero, I suppose we could give him the benefit of the doubt, at least until we figure out why. So, when he lands in Not India, and sees people who are not white (but also not Indian) he logically concludes (based on the knowledge that he has, not the knowledge we do) that he made it. He did what he set out to do and all he got was a little diarrhea and seasickness. But, that is about where the logical thinking ends. After he claimed the already occupied land for Spain, rather than becoming friendly with the locals who have food and knowledge of the area, he saw a young Native boy wearing a gold bracelet and then decided to enslave the region’s Natives and force them to dig for gold.  Yes, all this for one bracelet. The Natives that did not obey were killed, and many committed suicide rather than comply with the Spanish. But sure, name a day after Christopher Columbus. He seems like a swell guy. 
On the rare occasion that we learn POC history through POC characters, very few people take the lesson seriously. Annually, we probably only spend twenty or thirty minutes learning genuine POC history, and a lot of that time is used trying to figure out if you should say something in response to the jokes or insensitive comments that are being made by the white students or remain silent and pay attention to the lesson because who knows the next time you will learn something where the main character is not white. In order to open their cartridges to load their rifles, Sepoy soldiers had to tear open the paper packets with their teeth. The cartridges were greased with a mixture of beef tallow and pork lard. According to Hindu beliefs, cows are a sacred animal, so eating them was forbidden. The consumption of pork was forbidden by Islam. By forcing them to tear the packets with their teeth, the British greatly offended both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. When they revolted in 1857 in the first war of independence, the British executed the soldiers using the blowing from a gun method. The victims were tied to the mouth of a cannon which was then fired. I remember hearing one white student whisper, “so they were mass executed because they were picky eaters? Hashtag dumb ways to die.” In the forty-five seconds we spent talking about Mahatma Gandhi, another white student said, “yo, why does he look like Dobby?” His lame attempt at a joke backfired and most of the class, including the teacher, were stunned to hear someone say such a thing. Despite this, no one did or said anything to inform the student that what he said was wrong. Gandhi dressed the way he did to identify himself as one with the poor masses of India. He believed that he would not be able to work for and with the poor people of India if he dressed differently than they did. In making fun of him for the way he dressed, you really make fun of Indian culture. 
To stop the ignorant insurrections in our classrooms, we have to stop teaching history through a whitewashed lens. We need to be more inclusive with what we teach and use multiple, colorful lenses. Please, do not pull the “if students were actually interested in the subject, they would pursue them on their own” card, because that will not work. Most students do not care about how Henry Hudson explored the Hudson River, but they pay attention to it because they are being graded on it. Simply put, the bottom line is: do better. Teach students about what really happened to Native Americans. Teach them about how we are all living on stolen land. Teach them about how and why India decided on a non-violent revolution as a means to gain independence from Great Britain. Teach them about slavery without making the black students argue the pro-slavery side. I’m not saying stop teaching them about Europe and white people. Europe and white people have been around for a long time. They have done a lot of stuff, and some of it is worthy of being taught too. I’m simply saying, stop teaching students solely through the eyes of the white man because they will be missing a lot of the picture.

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