I learned in middle school social studies that George Washington wore wooden dentures. This was a lie. In fact, although Washington owned four pairs of dentures, none were made of wood. The most notable of the two surviving sets is on display at Mount Vernon. These dentures are made of ivory and human teeth. It is recorded in Washington’s private journal that he “purchased” these teeth from slaves on his estate. “Wooden dentures” is a convenient lie that allows us to avoid confronting an inconvenient truth: Washington was a slave-owner. He bought and sold human beings, chased them down when they tried to escape, and when he held the political power to abolish the institution, he chose not to. Kathryn Gehred, a researcher at the University of Virginia, writes that Washington likely delivered his famous Inaugural Address with a mouth full of slave teeth. This is our history.
I live in the south. Not the South, though. In a twist that non-Floridians may find paradoxical, north Florida feels more Southern than south Florida. But these semantics do not change our history. Florida joined the Confederacy in 1861. At the time, almost 40% of the state’s population was enslaved. And while there were only a few battles fought in Florida, the state was invaluable as a provider of food and supplies to the Confederacy. Despite this shameful history, at least 61 Confederate monuments stand in public spaces in my state. Our state flag bears the red St. Andrew’s Cross, and while some argue it holds no relation to the Confederacy, it remains a historical fact that the Cross was proposed by Governor Francis Fleming, a former Confederate soldier committed to enforcing segregation. This is our history.
Systemic racism in America cannot exist without a refusal to directly acknowledge American history. A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2018 found that nearly 40% of teachers said that their state offered little or no support for teaching about slavery. Of the students surveyed, 8% of high school seniors understood that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War, 12% knew that slavery was important to the economy of the Northern states, and only 22% could identify how the U.S. Constitution benefited slaveowners.
In this century, systemic racism doesn’t look the same, but it’s very much alive. It isn’t slavery, it’s mass incarceration. It’s not the Civil War, it’s the Lost Cause. It’s eighth-graders in San Antonio asked to list the positive and negative aspects of slavery. It’s an elementary school in Atlanta teaching third-graders about math with the question: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?” It’s history textbooks in Texas referring to slaves as immigrant workers. In a very real sense, to control the past is to control the present.
If we are serious about dismantling systemic racism, we need to confront the lies we tell ourselves about our own history.