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Texas Republicans take aim at history this Juneteenth. It could backfire.

Spirit of Sam Houston, we have a problem.
Image: Cotton Slaves
Slaves picking cotton on a plantation circa 1800.Hulton Archive / Getty Images file

On June 16, Texas history made the news twice. Both developments, in strikingly different ways, present an opportunity for history teachers to engage with their students anew about history, with all its intriguing complications, and its promise for teaching us today.

The bill's supporters bar teachers from teaching their students even the concept that slavery was part of the founding ideals of the United States.

In a strangely bipartisan scene, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution to establish Juneteenth (June 19) as a national holiday, to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat, joined Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, and Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat, in leading the effort.

Later that afternoon, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott unceremoniously signed HB 3979 into law, a bill that joins a host of others across the country known by some as "anti-1619" bills. In this act to alter the social studies curriculum standards for Texas public schools, the bill's supporters bar teachers from teaching their students even the concept that slavery was part of the founding ideals of the United States.

Spirit of Sam Houston, we have a problem.

The Republican leadership in Texas wants students to celebrate Juneteenth, and I applaud that. It is hard to believe that there is still no federal holiday to recognize, much less celebrate, the end of slavery in this nation. But what are we celebrating, practically? We're celebrating the end of an American law. The end of an American ideal. The end of American slavery. And the problem with Texas's HB 3979 — and every other similar law across the country — is that it wants to squelch the teaching of this truth. It wants students to taste the sweet fruit of Juneteenth without considering the rotten roots of slavery and racism.

Texas' new law in fact has two major problems. First, and most alarmingly for educators, it bans public school teachers from requiring students to read specific educational materials or even learn about particular ideas — specifically the idea that "the advent of slavery … constituted the true founding of the United States." The law also forbids teachers from even teaching the 1619 Project.

But there's a second and even more fundamental problem with bills like this one: they are inherently self-contradictory. They require teachers to present specific people and ideas in American history. Then they also aim to prevent teachers from discussing anything in those stories that might hint at inherent racism or slavery. Lawmakers may wish to maintain this contradiction, but when teachers teach these stories and documents, the contradiction cannot stand.

Lawmakers may wish to maintain this contradiction, but when teachers teach these stories and documents, the contradiction cannot stand.

Take Juneteenth, for example. HB 3979 requires teachers to present "historical documents related to the civic accomplishments of marginalized populations." Gen. Gordon Granger's General Order Number 3, announced in Galveston on June 19, 1865, certainly qualifies. It marked the end of legalized slavery in Texas. However, under this law, teachers should celebrate the freedom this document proclaimed, but dare not point out the laws which established slavery and defined Texas for the 30 years before. The story and documents push against this cognitive dissonance.

HB 3979 admirably calls for teachers to present the writings and lives of a diverse group of founding persons of the United States. This historian is perplexed. How should one teach about Ona Judge, a woman enslaved by George Washington, and who escaped? Her story is movingly told by Erica Armstrong Dunbar in her book “Never Caught” but it would seem terribly hard to teach it without talking about intimate and legal connection between slavery and American ideals during the time of the founding fathers. Similarly, how should I teach about Sally Hemings? President Thomas Jefferson enslaved her, carried on a long-term sexual relationship with her (the nature of which, historians still disagree on), and enslaved the children he fathered with her. In both cases, a teacher must laud the lives of a presidential enslaver and the enslaved, but religiously avoid the idea that slavery represented a key American ideal in their stories. This cannot be sustained.

Both HB 3979 and its twin law the 1836 Project (HB 2497) encourage teachers to talk with their students about the vital role of Texans in the life of the 1965 Voting Rights Act: President Lyndon B. Johnson's signing of it, President George W. Bush's extension of it, and Rep. Barbara Jordan's efforts to broaden its application. But what of the fact that a majority of the Texas congressional delegation voted against the Voting Rights Act in 1965? And what of Greg Abbott and other Texas leaders applauding when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 case Shelby v. Holder? Then there's Texas' SB7, one among many current laws Republican state legislatures across the nation are eagerly promoting, which restrict the vote in ways the Voting Rights Act explicitly guarded against. And if teachers simply present these threads as part of the story and documentary record, students will begin to understand, regardless of what ideas the law attempts to erase.

The sustained presence and effects of slavery and racism in American history and life cannot be ignored. And they cannot be explained away as merely unfortunate deviations from or betrayals of American ideals. The very stories and documents that these bills call for us to read will not allow it. There is no Juneteenth without legal, institutional, commonplace slavery in Texas. We cannot have Washington and Jefferson as freedom-fighting founders without also having them as eager enslavers. Texas cannot celebrate its role in the greatest guarantee of voting rights in the 20th century without also embracing its role as one of its greatest opponents.

Texas' new education laws are wrong to disassociate slavery and racism from the founding of the United States and Texas. Slavery and racism were rooted firmly in American laws. They too were American ideals. We disrespect our teachers, disempower our students, and deny our history when we try to pretend otherwise.