Today, I’m going to finish the discussion I began last week on history and the ways that we construct meaning. In the last post, I looked at Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). For this post, I will focus on one more scene from Gaines’ novel then move on to look at a section from Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) that shows Ruth’s interactions with her history teacher Mrs. Grayson.
According to the history teacher who tells Miss Jane’s story, he wants to transcribe her story for his students because she does not appear in their text books. This image of missing history arises a couple other times within the novel. One occurs when Tee Bob kills himself in the library surrounded by books on history and slavery. The other occurs when Tee Bob visits the schoolhouse in the quarters where Mary Agnes teaches. When he visits the school, “he picked up one of the books and went through it till he came to a place where a page was missing. He asked Mary Agnes if many of the books was like that. She told him yes, but she always made the children read out somebody else’s book.”
While a physical part of the book that Tee Bob thumbs through is missing, indicating the substandard materials available to the children within the school, the missing page also symbolically represents the missing stories that the book does not contain. Thus, it continues the thread that runs throughout the novel, the reclamation of history and stories that have been silenced and erased in the historical narrative through national myths and constructed educational materials.
Walker’s novel provides a more in depth exploration of how school curriculums, in the service of creating well-rounded citizens, perpetuates national myths by eliminating numerous voices and perspectives from that historical narrative. Mrs. Grayson tells the class that they need to learn how to have “forthright patriotic minds for use in service to our country,” making them proud to be American, without questioning what being American, and the history that entails, means for them as Black children in rural Georgia.
For Mrs. Grayson, history served to teach teach students “what had gone on in the world.” In this manner, history exists not as a constructed narrative but as a recitation of facts and events that happened in the past. The narrator follows up Mrs. Grayson’s view of history with a list of historical people and events: “Eli Whitney, the cotton gin, Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, George Washington and the Minutemen.” This list, beginning with Whitney and not Jefferson and Washington, subverts the idea that history is nothing more that a receptacle of the past. While there is no comment about the racist aspects of Whitney, Jefferson, or Washington, by beginning with Whitney then moving to the Founding Fathers, the list shows the foundations of America, the exploitation of Blacks through the institution of slavery.
Mrs. Grayson continues by asking the class why “American history was more important than any other kind,” and she answers her own question by stating, “Because it is the history of you and I, the proud history of a free people! We have fought to remain free.” Mrs. Grayson eschews any discussion of slavery or Jim Crow in her response, instead presenting American as an egalitarian nation. This is problematic because it washes away any traces of oppression and subjugation, not just with slavery but with anti-immigration laws, colonization projects, and more.
Again, right after Mrs. Grayson answers her own question, she reminds the students, “Pearl Harbor, she said rhetorically, and the Civil War.” This configuration, like the previous one, is interesting because Pearl Harbor is first and the Civil War second. I do not think many people would argue that these two events are historically important in American history. However, the argument will arise when discussions about the reasons for their importance enter into the conversation. I would argue, like I do with the list of people mentioned earlier, that this construction subtly counters Mrs. Grayson’s view, namely because of Dorie Miller’s actions at Pearl Harbor and the fact that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Mrs. Grayson’s patriotism takes precedent, continuing to ignore America’s true history.
Ultimately, Mrs. Grayson becomes a mouthpiece for the textbooks she teaches from: “She mouthed all the words in the textbooks but they did not come out coherently as they appeared on the page.” By repeating the textbook and not challenging the narrative, Mrs. Grayson adheres to the constructed myth of America’s democratic, egalitarian experiment, and she instills those same ideas into her students’ minds as well, unless, like Ruth, they actively resist.
Mrs. Grayson’s regurgitation of the facts within the textbook aside, the source of the textbooks also causes problems because “[b]efore they got it from the white school they hadn’t had a history book.” The history book that Ruth and the other students use came from the white school, and the same could possibly be said about the books in Mary Agnes’ school. This fact shows that the constructed history within the texts comes from a white, Eurocentric vantage point, and that history gets passed along to Ruth and her classmates, creating within them a narrative of America as exceptional, democratic, and egalitarian. What does this do for Ruth and the other students?
Ruth flips through the pages of her book and sees a former students name, Jacqueline Paine. Jacqueline went to the white school, Baker County Elementary School. Below Jacqueline’s name, Ruth sees a drawing entitled “The Tree of the Family of Man.” The drawing shows a tree with people at various levels. At the top, against the blue sky, were whites, showing them with test tubes, in lab coats, tall buildings, and airplanes. Here, Jacqueline wrote, “Note: Americans, Germans, People who live in the extreme Northern part of Europe.”
Immediately below the “‘Americans’ were people drawn in yellow wearing funny little straw hats and . . . driving huge water buffalo” amidst pieces of jade and bamboo objects. Here, Jacqueline wrote, “Note: The Yellow Race. Chinese, Japanese, etc. and people who live far away from us, in the Far East.” The next tier of the tree depicted Native Americas smoking pipes sitting next to rugs. Jacqueline’s note read, “Our own American Indians. We saved from disease and wild primitive life. Taught them useful activities as pictured above. They have also been known to make beads.” At the “bottom of the tree, not actually joined to it but emanating from a kind of rootless branch, there was the drawing of a man, in black, with fat lips grinning lips, a bone sticking through his nose” as he wore a grass skirt while stirring a boiling pot. Here, Jacqueline simply wrote, “Note: A nigger.”
The whole “Tree of the Family of Man” depicts a racial hierarchy, one centered, as John Hector St. John De Crèvecœur’s melting pot, in Western Europe, ignoring and othering the rest of civilization. Jacqueline Paine, due to her whiteness, bought into this narrative, even spewing it back within the margins of the book. Did her teacher tell her to write those notes? Did she do it on her own? Does it matter? No. What matters is that she has imbibed the narratives that race is a biological fact and that she, somehow, is superior that everyone else due to her whiteness.
Ruth and her classmates receive these books. If Jacqueline’s teacher told students to write these stereotypical ramblings in their own books, then that means that every student in Mrs. Grayson’s class sees the same words next to the same image. What does this do to these student’s psychology? They, like Brownfield does in the novel, begin to accept the narrative and perceive themselves as inferior because of the color of their skin. Mrs. Grayson does not challenge this, or any history in the textbook, thus sanctioning and perpetuating the narrative.
Grange challenges the narrative, telling Ruth about the atrocities committed in the belief of some racial hierarchy and by stealing her books from the library. As such, she has the ability to speak out because she knows the truth of America’s historical sins. She flings the book to the floor and Mrs. Grayson yells at her, telling her she will not amount to anything because she doesn’t listen. The fact is, though, that Ruth listens and Mrs. Grayson doesn’t. Ruth curses Mrs. Grayson out and storms out of the room.
Ultimately, as I wrote last week, history and literature do not serve as the vault where we store events and facts. Instead, they exist as sites where we challenge the inherited myths of the past that continue to oppress and subjugate individuals. As such, we need to think about history and literature as weapons not as dusty books that we look to for facts or read to feel comfortable and escape our everyday lives.
What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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