On Culture and It’s Absence in History Textbooks

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I feel as if a lot of my posts recently have been focused on topics discussed in my Social Work class this past semester. I guess that means it’s something I’m really interested in? Well, here is another video we watched in class and discussed. It is a poem by Fong Tran entitled “History Textbooks.” (The lyrics to the poem can be read here).

This poem focuses on the way history is presented to us in school. As a Native American, I’ve always been underwhelmed with the information about my culture taught in History classes.

“Eurocentric euphuisms like West expansion/Exploration, Manifest Destiny, and Spreading Democracy/Are just tactful translations from truth as/Slave trade, colonists, imperialism”

This whole idea has always been difficult to grasp. I loved History. It was always one of my favorite subjects in school. I thought it was captivating and so interesting. I still do. I love learning about past events, leaders, and movements. Until seeing this video in class, I could not realize why I never felt completely satisfied with my History education.

“History textbooks are written like/ A bad version of Lord of the Rings/ and I’ve been bored since the first book/ America is Frodo Baggins/ Uncle Sam if Gandalf/ And the evil Sauron/ Is made out to be every youth of color/ With a hoodie, Skittles and iced tea/ Or a man or woman/ In a turban or hijab/ Or someone with a family crest on his chest/Mistaken as a gang-related tattoo.”

After high school, I moved to a completely different region of the country to a pretty diverse school (At least more diverse than my high school…or my entire hometown). As I started to meet people from different racial backgrounds, religions, cultures and ways of life, I was struck with a realization that I was so incredibly ignorant. I knew nothing about other religions. I knew nothing about other countries or what their governments or daily lives were like. Ever since I moved, it has been a constant learning experience. I learned more about history from personal interactions than I ever did from sitting in a History class.

“Please tell my young students that/ Vietnamese people/ My people/ My History is more than 2 textbook pages about a war/ But we’re a culture/ A Peoples/ A Way of Life…We must reclaim the history that has yet been told to us”

As long as you are white and male, American History sounds like a pretty great time. If you’re a woman: a little bit less. If you’re a person of color: forget it! If someone had come up to me in high school and asked, “Sydney, tell me something about Vietnamese Americans. What about Hispanic Americans? What about Indian Americans?” I definitely would not have been able to list more than one or two things, and those things would have all most likely been about wars or something negative about those countries and their difficulties with the U.S. I want to hear the stories of these Americans. They are American just as I am. We claim to be a “melting pot,” but we forget that if we are going to use that title, we have to remember the reasons we became that. I want to hear about American History. I don’t want to hear only about the History of White Americans with a little bit of other cultures sprinkled in. Because that is not the truth.

“If you do not tell your stories, and write down your own histories, then someone else will. And I’m not saying it’s the man, but that someone is usually really white. Really old. And Really male. And the alphabet soup at the end of his name: Ph.D. confuses him. Confuses what he understands to be fact is really just an glorified opinion.”

So take this in. Recall what you were taught and what you were not. I am so beyond thankful that I have had the opportunities to learn from personal interactions over the past two years. I am so incredibly thankful that I have been able to have open dialogues about culture, race, power and privilege. I encourage you to write your own history. Think about your ancestry and your culture. You are more than just a by-product of a society of white males. Write your stories. Share your stories. We hold so much power in the ability that we have to speak, interact and share. Learn about the people you spend your time with, and let them learn about you.

“We will write our own stories, we will make our own histories upon canvas, upon page, upon walls, upon minds.”

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