One of the most important jobs that a history teacher has is threefold: learn the truth, know the truth and teach the truth. When teaching children of color, understand that traditionally, the “canon” has withheld the whole truth of American history. Whether Black or White, if you’re a history teacher, it is your obligation to unearth the withheld truths – for students of all backgrounds. Knowledge absent of truth is not power; it is to be inhibited.
In light of the unfortunate school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the gun law debate has re-emerged in the mainstream discourse. One side advocates for stricter laws; including prohibiting the sale of military weapons and improved background checks for prospective buyers. The other side of the debate argues in favor of the 2nd amendment; that Americans have the right to purchase the guns of their choice for their protection and to hunt. There are many arguments held by folks on each side of the debate. What isn’t up for debate is the language of the 2nd amendment. I do not advise for history teachers to facilitate a discussion on gun rights versus gun regulations without a thorough understanding of the 2nd amendment and the history surrounding it. The second amendment states:
“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Most gun rights enthusiasts fail to focus on the first part of the amendment when arguing for the second part. The purpose of people having guns was to maintain a well-regulated militia. According to Michael Waldman, constitutional lawyer and president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, the founders were concerned with protecting national liberty rather than individuals right to protect themselves:
“…When you actually go back and look at the debate that went into [the] drafting of the amendment, you can squint and look really hard, but there’s simply no evidence of it being about individual gun ownership for self-protection or for hunting. Emphatically, the focus was on the militias. To the framers, that phrase “a well-regulated militia” was really critical. In the debates, in James Madison’s notes of the Constitutional Convention, on the floor of the House of Representatives, as they wrote the Second Amendment, all the focus was about the militias. Now at the same time, those militias are not the National Guard. Every adult man, and eventually every adult white man, was required to be in the militias and was required to own a gun, and to bring it from home. So it was an individual right to fulfill the duty to serve in the militias..”
The purpose of the well-regulated militia, according to the framers, was for people – White men – to serve as a check to the national government’s standing army, funded and maintained by Congress. This was inspired by European monarchs who ruled by disarming the people according to folks like Noah Webster and George Mason. Ultimately, the founders wanted White males to be in a position to fight against a tyrannical government if necessary. The second amendment is about that, not about an individual’s rights to own guns. The NRA only acknowledges the half-truth of the amendment in its own headquarters lobby. According to Michael Waldman, the same quote remains.
A half-truth is a whole lie.
So then, why is there such a desire to attach the 2nd amendment with individual gun ownership? A better question maybe, why do people fight for their ability to own guns, any gun of their liking, so ferociously – to the point of asserting gun ownership as a right? The answer can be found in the culture of the antebellum era.
Some gun rights enthusiasts point to the landmark decision of District of Columbia v. Heller as the alpha and omega of the argument for the rights of individuals to own guns. However, Justice Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, looked to Nunn v. State for an interpretation of the 2nd amendment. Nunn, a state court case, was one of the first cases to strike down gun law using the second amendment. The decision of the case came from a man who was both a “champion of slavery and the southern code of honor.” Courts have referred to Nunn and court cases like it to uphold the rights of citizens to own guns. But the Nunn case, and cases like it, come from antebellum courthouses. These courts were led by White men steeped in and defenders of the antebellum traditions of Black slavery and White honor.
The antebellum south was a place where violence was used to keep decorum amongst White men and to keep slaves in line. When we speak of antebellum culture, we often think of the genteel nature of southern gentlemen and southern bells. We think of plantations as beautiful mansions with porches for families to entertain guest with a glass of lemonade and hardy conversation; not for the gateways to a world of violence and oppression. To be clear, the antebellum south was a place of violence and oppression.
“Violence was a central element of slave and honor culture in the South. Richard Hildreth, an antebellum lawyer, journalist, and historian, wrote in 1840 that violence was frequently employed both to subordinate slaves and to intimidate abolitionists. That violence, in turn, resulted in ‘a complete paroxism of fear’ and ‘extreme degree of terror . . . of slave vengeance’ amongst the slaveholding classsMeanwhile, violence between white men ‘to preserve white manhood and personal status’ was encouraged in Southern honor culture. According to Hildreth, duels ‘appear but once an age’ in the North, but ‘are of frequent and almost daily occurrence at the South.’ As a result of the distinct cultural phenomena of slavery and honor, Southern men carried weapons both ‘as a protection against the slaves’ and also to be prepared for ‘quarrels between freemen’.”
Teaching the truth about the constitution and its amendments is vitally important. If you seek to engage in such lessons surrounding current events or contentious public policy issues that involve the constitution and/or amendments, make sure that you do the following:
- Be unafraid to go on a search for the truth. It may be uncomfortable searching for the truth, especially when you have a feeling the truth will go against convictions and “truths’ you hold near and dear. But if you’re looking to grow as an individual and be a better teacher for your students, you must engage in critical research that challenges you in order for you to challenge the society where you engage daily.
- Don’t rely on a textbook to learn or teach the truth. You’re going to have to read books, scholarly journals, online periodicals and places like Blavity, Vox, Slate, Vulture, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, or Atlanta Black Star. A textbook will not take you to the truth, just the status quo.
- Give yourself adequate time to find the truth. If you decide to teach a topic, don’t expect to be ready by the next day. Give yourself a few days for discovery, followed by some time to organize the information to teach. Anything worth doing takes time – including teaching and learning.
- Make the same materials where you found the truth available to your students. If there is a book that you read that can be purchased for your kids, get it. If not, copy specific passages and pass them out. Anything of substance that you find online; make copies for kids and pass them out. If you can put together a makeshift text from your read materials do so. Give your students the keys so that they can drive even further than you did.
- Show your students how to find the truth in what they read. Kids do not instinctively know the nuances of reading – they learn it in school and they probably don’t know the nuances of reading a college-level text. So you have to teach them. That means you start teaching them how to crawl. Next, show them how to walk and then how to run. Once they can run, show them how to run faster.
- Crawl: reading by itself is crawling. Students cannot understand what they read unless they read it. If you want to read an academic journal, start with a sentence and teach them how to understand what it says – that’s walking.
- Walk: walking is simply understanding what it is you are reading or what you have already read. When they can understand what a text says and internalize it, they’re walking. Once they’ve internalized a text, they can begin analyzing that text to gather context, meaning, and agenda; to pick it apart – that’s running.
- Run: running is when a student can break down what they read to gain information indirectly stated. The breakdown helps to gather implied meaning from the historical context, culture and text location i.e. which chapter it is or which paragraph within a chapter/essay, surrounding the passage they are reading. Upon doing that they can take a stance; either arguing for what they read or arguing against it – that’s running faster.
- Running Faster: running faster is having the ability to digest a text and form an opinion based on what they read. That could mean having an opinion at the moment or deciding to take in more reading to strengthen the certainty of their opinion. Once a child can do that, they are now a critical thinker and a critical reader.
The role of a history teacher is very important. Teaching history should never be taken lightly; neither should learning history. A large reason why we are wrong about a lot of things is that we don’t know the truth of history. Either we didn’t learn it, the truth was withheld from us or we were lied to. If you’re a history teacher – learn the truth, know the truth and teach the truth. Hopefully, what I’ve said has helped you do all three.
Let’s continue to press towards the mark.