The murder of nine black church members at a Bible study session in Charleston, South Carolina—in which those members had welcomed the white man who, after sitting with them for an hour, executed them one by one—reminds us of the importance of teaching in depth about race in our present moment. Presumably most of our school children know that slavery existed in the South; perhaps a much smaller number learned that in the colonial era it existed everywhere. But the learning tends to be superficial. How many of them learn about the multiple forms of resistance to slavery—escapes, rebellions, passive resistance, the Abolitionist movement? For example, how many have learned about Denmark Vesey, who planned an elaborate (aborted) rebellion in Charleston in 1822, and founded the very church, Emmanuel AME, where the shooting took place?
Ironically, the shooter, Dylann Roof, knew some of this history, the historic significance of Charleston, and probably of the Emmanuel AME church. He read many slave narratives, from which he took away the message that slavery was a benevolent institution, a familiar trope in slavery-apologist Southern history. When I used slave narratives in a high school course on race and racism, one student said a main thing she learned was how slavery was a “way of life” that slaves crafted to live from day to day. Although no unbiased reader can read these narratives and take away the message that slavery was benevolent, it is true that Mary Prince, the writer of the narrative my students read, occasionally said positive things about particular slave masters or members of their families. Roof took such passages to confirm his view of slavery. All this only shows why this rich and complex historical material must be taught with depth, sensitivity, and historical context.
Many whites seem to have been shocked that Roof draped himself in the Confederate flag as a symbol of his white supremacist beliefs. In his moving eulogy for Emmanuel AME’s minister, whom he knew, President Obama called out the point of view behind this shock: “For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate Flag stirred into many of our citizens. As we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression.”1
Roof left a manifesto of sorts, which explains the development of his thinking. It is quite fascinating. Roof was not a lunatic. He was just a thoughtful, hate-filled white supremacist. He knew what he was doing. He was carrying on the tradition of terrorist violence against blacks that went back to the post-slavery era.
This horrible tragedy presents a national teachable moment. That moment must include teachers at all levels crafting our curricula and courses to include this history of slavery, white supremacy, and terrorist violence against black people—and its legacy, far from transcended, into the present.
A transcript of Obama’s wonderful eulogy can be found here