This article was written by Daniel Warner.
Daniel Warner serves as History Department Chair at East High School. He is a graduate of the Memphis Teacher Residency, was named the West Tennessee Teacher of the Year in 2020, and is a recipient of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship.
Each year, as a U.S. History teacher, I ask my high school students to grapple with American history and American identity. I begin my classes with a huge question: “What does it mean to be American?”
But teachers can’t just ask the hard questions of their students, we have to allow ourselves to sit with those questions, too. That’s what I got to do this summer.
A Summer of Learning as a James Madison Fellow
As a James Madison Fellow, I spent a month in Washington D.C. with over fifty other incredible secondary history teachers from each state living the history teacher dream – taking classes on the U.S. Constitution and the Founding period, exploring D.C., learning from brilliant professors and guest lecturers, and going on lots of field trips. We heard from Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Blight, had a Q&A with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, and discussed with former Secretary of Education John King, Jr. what it means to examine American history and civic identity in our social studies classrooms. We traveled to Monticello, Montpelier, and Mount Vernon, the sprawling Virginia plantations of Jefferson, Madison, and Washington.
Maybe you’ve been to D.C., too, and traveled to those historic sites. Maybe you’ve heard the docents tell lighthearted stories of dinner guests, architectural choices, and the paintings adorning the walls. But if you haven’t been in recent years, you should go back. There’s now a fuller history to encounter, one that the historic homes have begun to include. It’s indicative of the history wars happening now – the struggle over what American history is and how it should be taught. These historic homes tell a history that engages the legacy of American slavery. Their guides are now pointing out this paradox: that among those we remember as the foremost advocates of natural rights, popular sovereignty, and the right to resist tyranny during the American Revolution were some of Virginia’s largest slaveholders who denied those very rights to the human beings enslaved on their land.
Some Americans are not in favor of engaging such a paradox at these sites or elsewhere, but discussing such a tension with history teachers from across the country made clear that telling a fuller history is not canceling, it’s contextualizing. And what is a history classroom if not a space to provide context, even context that may be inconvenient to national myths? When the Montpelier Foundation elects to include descendants of those enslaved by James Madison in their decision making processes, they do not erase history as some may accuse–they empower the very people who have been erased or minimized by the way history has been told to shape the story.
Daring to engage a fuller history recognizes that we do not need perfect heroes or flawless founders. Instead, we need accurate accountings that allow us to engage the complex idea that those who went before us – like each of us now – were sources of both good and evil, not gods, but humans.
Indeed, to engage the truth of our history is to recognize how human this experiment in self-government was and to recognize how human it continues to be today. It is this humanness of America and American history that makes it both “beautiful” and “terrible,” as James Baldwin described it.
A Fuller History For Memphis
As I left D.C. and made the long drive back to Memphis, I thought of the ways our own community has begun to confront the hard history of this city and region. Since I started teaching American history here in 2013, a lot has changed:
- The Confederate parks have been renamed.
- The University of Memphis hosted a national symposium on the Memphis Massacre of 1866 that led to a new historical marker telling the critical story of post-Civil War white supremacist violence in our city and its role in the passage of the 14th Amendment.
- The Jim Crow era statue to Nathan Bedford Forrest and the erected-in-1964 statue of Jefferson Davis have been taken down.
- A fuller history of Forrest and the Memphis slave trade has been marked downtown.
- Facing History students and the Lynching Sites Project boldly gave voice to the story of Ell Persons’ lynching with a public ceremony and historical markers.
And most recently, a statue to anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells was unveiled on Beale, celebrating a Black woman who bore witness to some of the darkest parts of American history and still chose to shine the light of truth on them.
As school began a few weeks ago, I came back to my usual question about what it means to be American with a renewed energy – a renewed hope for all the latent possibilities of the American experiment. So, what does it mean to be American? Responding to such a big question on the first day of class, the brilliant teenagers who I get to call my students named rights, equality, the rule of law, birthright citizenship, self-determination, equal opportunity, and the American dream, among other ideas of culture and entertainment. But after listening to a few of her classmates answer the question, one student responded, “I can’t say exactly what it means to be American because there are so many different experiences of America.”
And I think that’s a good place to begin an inquiry into American history.
As we renegotiate our relationship to how our history is told, who gets remembered, and who gets celebrated, we can start from a place of humility that there are experiences outside our own that have something to teach us about what it means to be American, about what it means to be a Memphian. That’s the stuff of the history classroom. That’s the stuff of democracy.