I have to learn how to make historical myths into a "teachable moment."
Several times this semester, students have brought to me myths about history. "You know where the word 'picnic' comes from don't you?" they will ask; or "When are you going to talk about the Willie Lynch letter?" Sometimes, the question will be followed by a lengthy and impassioned explanation that "picnic" came from the days when white people sat around eating lunches outside and would "pick a n-----" to hang for entertainment, or a detailed explanation of how this master made a long speech about how to control the slaves by dividing and conquering.
The damn quilt story has shown up once or twice too, including during a tour of a museum where one of my classes is doing a service learning project. The museum actually has a quilt, made and donated by a local club, depicting the "map of the Underground Railroad in code," just as described in that damn book. The guide, who was also going to be teaching our students how to do research in their library and archive, went into great detail about how the slaves used these sorts of quilts to escape on the Underground Railroad. "Some people disagree with this," she admitted, then handed out a sheet -- the only handout in the whole museum -- that explained each symbol.
I usually have no trouble busting myths in my class. Some of my lectures actually use myth-busting as a hook. After all, the First Thanksgiving -- especially at this time of year -- provides ripe ground both for learning the realities of contact and for talking about how and why history gets simplified into happy little lies. My American students love the technique, and my foreign students like learning a little more about American popular culture as they also learn about history.*
Pilgrims, Betsy Ross, and the historical oeuvre from Disney and Mel Gibson are all easy myths to engage in class both for their inaccuracies and because they are white history. My students are generally prepared with healthy doses of skepticism in this regard. So shattering myths of white people plays well with them, and I present no threat to them as a white person doing the shattering.
"Picnicking," Willie Lynch, and the damn quilts are all black history myths. A white person shattering -- or merely questioning those myths -- doesn't play so well, and partly because of that skepticism.
Take for instance my most recent encounter with picnic. Now, when I first heard this story about two years ago, my reaction was "nawww, that can't be true." White people have committed some cruel and unusual punishments on the black body, but the connection between lynching and the word picnic just didn't seem to be one of them. Sure enough, the OED dated the word back to 1748. The original word meant "a fashionable social event at which each guest contributed a share of the food ."
When my student recently brought this up, I said, "actually, I looked that up in the dictionary..." The student interrupted me and said, "it IS true. I talked to people who lived back in that time and they told me that they remembered it." How does a white teacher constructively respond to that without seeming like they are trying to absolve white people of race crimes, and without seeming like they are calling the elderly acquaintances of the student liars.
The same with the Willie Lynch speech. I had actually never heard of it until last year, when a student told me about it. So, I looked it up. There is no documentation of this speech, just like there is no documentation of that use of picnic. Both started as one of those forwarded e-mails that people send on and on and on without actually questioning the contents. Yet, both and the quilts story, keep getting repeated as truth.
How does a white teacher confront these myths without becoming, in the eyes of her very suspicious students, one of "them," one of the white myth makers? The answer probably lies somewhere in the ways that I cover the rigors of historical evidence and research. Even then, I encounter this deep skepticism of documentation, a skepticism that I helped to foster when discussing the problems of researching African American history in documents.
Some of these students now meet the fact of limited documentation with theories about destruction or suppression of documents. While that is not entirely untrue, they haven't quite made it to the level of what I call "researching around the holes" -- of finding other ways of getting at the realities of African American life in the absence of direct documentation of African American lives. Instead, they jump to "it could have been" as a reasonable historical argument in the face of an absence of evidence.
They didn't learn that technique in my class, but they have learned it from a million different popular sources, many in respected places such as museums, and my refutation of that argument as legitimate for history again places me into the "them" category.
Again, I haven't fully figured out how to confront this, particularly from the confines of a white body and therefore part of the system that has put these students on the defensive. I am trying to work my way around these confines to connect with them somewhere firmly in their experience. I think the solution includes more and more primary documentation in my lectures, and more and more examples of the ways that historians have constructed historical arguments about African American history. I have to validate their suspicions while also giving them the materials to use that suspicion to find documented answers rather than myths that "could be true."
A myth buster must be fearless in deconstructing cherished stories, but a teacher must reach her students by first not alienating them.
*Seriously, I fielded about a dozen questions about the origins of Santa Claus and his red suit last Thursday, which I mixed in with answers about the history of Christmas celebrations, which I then connected to abolition. We didn't finish the lecture material for the day, but we all enjoyed the hell out of the class.