How a drive in Florida reminded me of what I learned and didn’t learn in school.
Around the Block has been quiet for a while. It’s not because I haven’t had any things I’ve wanted to say; there’s plenty to say: Trump is back; “Trumpism” never went away; Pence is still acting the toady; Matt Gaetz is a moron (yes, he did retweet a Memorial Day tribute to that great American soldier-hero Lee Harvey Oswald); Marjorie Taylor Greene is still an anti-Semitic racist (yes, she did equate wearing a mask with the yellow stars the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust, calling them, I believe, “Gold Stars”); a woman in Tennessee fashioned one of those “Gold Stars” with a new inscription, replacing the word “Jude” with “Mask-less”; Republicans in the Senate used the the first filibuster of 2021 to stop passage of the establishment of the January 6th Commission charged with investigating the Capitol insurrection; voter suppression laws and regulations continue to spread among the Red States like poison ivy; endless, bogus and flawed recounts of a legitimate election held over six months ago continue; Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are still, well, indescribable; Israel is a mess; and Hurricane Season in Florida officially began this week.
Suffice it to say, there’s been plenty of material.
So, what’s been holding me back? Well, it would be easy to say that my silence is because I’ve been reading and researching for several other writing projects. I have, but those projects have been on-going for months (years?) and haven’t stopped me before.
Perhaps it’s simply a case of ennui; most of what’s been going on is horrible. But am I just bored with writing about it? I mean it’s not like I’m making any money doing this. And then a road trip to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area last week sparked a thought; a thought that had been in the deep recesses of my mind for a long time; a thought about how I/we were educated back in the ’50’s
On the trip itself, up the west coast of Florida, we passed many signs for DeSoto this and Ponce de Leon that – sites, parks, roads, etc (but, alas no DeSoto cars – sorry Groucho). As you might, and I do, remember, Hernando DeSoto and Juan Ponce de León were two of the dozens of Spanish explorers, or more appropriately, “Conquistadores” who came to the New World seeking fame and fortune for themselves and enormous wealth for their monarchs back home. What is now Florida was central to both men’s conquests. And specifically in Ponce de Leon’s case, his apocryphal quest for the “Fountain of Youth.”
Other famous conquistadors of the late 15th/early 16th century included Hernán Cortés (Mexico), Francisco Pizarro (Peru), Vasco Núñez de Balboa (Panama, and the “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean) and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, Christopher Columbus. (On a side note, recent research suggests that Columbus, who sailed for Spain but was from Genoa, Italy, was not Italian at all, but Polish! Mamma Mia! Can you imagine how that’ll go down inside those Columbus-named Italian-American clubs in cities around the country? And how will the annual Columbus Day parade down Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s Italian North Beach look when food vendors have to switch out their pasta and cannolis and begin selling kielbasa and pirogies? But that’s a subject for another story)
So you ask, what’s the point? And what does this have to do with my NYC education in the ’50’s? Well first let me set your minds at ease. It’s not about “woke” or “cancel culture.” But it is about this: We were taught that Columbus, Cortés, Pizarro, DeSoto, Ponce de León and the others were heroes. Brave explorers who “discovered” all these lands, setting into motion what ultimately became America. Intrepid men who opened up the “New World” for Spanish, and then, French and British exploration and colonization. We were taught to revere them for their courage and valor. They were great men, we learned, who sacrificed much, often their lives, to create this New World.
But here’s what we weren’t taught, as described by Jack Weatherford, an anthropologist at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn in an Op-ed in the Baltimore Sun:
“This (slavery and genocide) was the great cultural encounter initiated by Christopher Columbus. This is the event we celebrate each year on Columbus Day. The United States honors only two men with federal holidays bearing their names. In January we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr., who struggled to lift the blinders of racial prejudice and to cut the remaining bonds of slavery in America. In October, we honor Christopher Columbus, who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history.“
We all know now about Columbus’ atrocities and how they were emulated by most of fellow conquistadors. Cortés, perhaps the most famous, was also probably the most ruthless. Why didn’t we learn about all this in school in the ’50’s? Why can I still recite from memory, “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue?” Why are the names of Columbus’ three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria ingrained in my memory. Why didn’t we learn the truth? Why was there a hole in our educational curriculum?
This road trip awakened more why’s. And these why’s, these educational holes, are more personal.
In St. Petersburg we visited The Florida Holocaust Museum, one of three Holocaust museums accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. The museum was founded in 1992, moving to it’s current location in 1998. It was founded by Walter and Edith Lobenberg both of whom were German Jews who escaped persecution in Nazi Germany by immigrating to the United States. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel served as Honorary Chairman and cut the ribbon at the 1998 opening ceremony. It was founded with the idea of “teaching the members of all races and cultures the inherent worth and dignity of life in order to prevent future genocides”. The museum is extremely well laid out, including one of the best explanations and visualizations of Anne Frank, her life and death and includes both permanent historical and special Holocaust art exhibits (like the statue below).
One exhibit in particular reminded me of my early education gap: a collage of American newspaper headlines from the late ’30’s through the early ’40’s of Nazi atrocities against Jews in Europe (note: this is a representation of the the exhibit).
The exhibit reminded me of what I’ve known for years, but didn’t learn in school. America, its government and its people were fully aware of the Jewish genocide going on in Europe. That they didn’t do anything about it until the Japanese bombed America into war is a disgrace. That we kids, as far as I can remember, weren’t taught anything about the Holocaust in our elementary and junior high schools in the ’50’s is beyond belief. And that the fact that the subject never came up in conversation with my parents and grandparents, including a father and three uncles who fought in Europe against the Germans is, at the least, puzzling. Yes, I know the excuse that it was too fresh, too raw in the ’50’s to discuss such horrific events. But, what were they hiding? It took until 1959-60 for even Hollywood to wake up with the release of blockbusters like “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Exodus.” Since then, Holocaust films have become a bit of a cottage industry; almost 100 in the 2000’s alone have been produced. But not when I was a kid.
I feel as if I was left growing up with both untruths (regarding the conquistadors) and a big hole (regarding the Holocaust). I’ve known about both the untruths and the hole for many, many years. It is kind of ironic that it took a road trip to St. Petersburg Florida, of all places, to bring back the fact that there was a time when, through no fault of my own, I didn’t know any of this.
Of course, these are only two examples of what we didn’t learn. America’s original sin, slavery, was only discussed in the context of the Civil War. Jim Crow? Dred Scott? The fact that Woodrow Wilson, a hero, was a racist? Never mind. And White America’s treatment of Native Americans was only discussed in the context of Cowboys (the good guys) and Indians (the bad guys). Who knew that another hero of mine growing up, Andrew Jackson, the founder of the modern Democratic party, really deserved the sobriquet given to him in the 2010 rock musical, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?”
Did they really teach all this but I was sleeping in class? Did I just forget?
The road trip is over. The car is parked. It was an interesting couple of days. But I’m left with this thought: is it just me or did your experiences contain similar educational distortions and gaps? Thoughts and comments appreciated.
10 thoughts on “The revelations of a road trip”
Of course, our generation learned none of these historical truths in school. American democracy was put on a pedestal after WWII. America saved Europe was the norm. Americans were indoctrinating its young. The opposition to the Vietnam protesters in the 1960’s was “America love it or leave it.” America could do no wrong! Isn’t that what the Republicans are now trying to do with state legislation outlawing the true teaching of the history of slavery and the black experience in this country. Pleeease!!! I don’t even want to get started with what our generation did to pull us into the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.
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You’re right (actually left…but never mind). I just needed for folks to reaffirm for me how blind we were (as kids) growing up in an America First world. Having said that, I’m still not sure how we could have been taught to put the conquistadors on a pedestal, without any regard for their atrocities, and then, hundreds of years later, avoid discussion with our parents or teachers about the 20th century atrocities that were so close to who we are.
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Sad to say that my education on these matters was as blind as yours!!!
How interesting that you wrote (and posted) this yesterday, the same day that Tom Hanks wrote an Op-Ed in the Times about something very similar! (ie. The Tulsa Massacre, etc.) Did you read it??
I had not read Hank’s op-ed but have now. Thanks for the heads-up. Unfortunately it is a shame that we both, and many others who’ve commented to me, were subject to similar holes in their education. I guess what we’re finally learning is that truth will eventually win out.
I was fortunate to have had a mother who majored in history in Brooklyn College,. Daughter of immigrants, both of whom lost family members in the Holocaust, my family was very vocal about the injustices before, during, and after the Civil War, and many horrifying stories of the Holocaust from the few letters they received before hearing nothing. My maternal grandfather went to Poland to get his parents and sister out. They refused to go, and it haunted him for the rest of his life. My father, born in Warsaw, was somehow politically active, and strangely secretive about it. So I grew up knowing more than most of my teachers, which displeased them greatly, since I often chose to reeducate them… another story. I am grateful to say that our son’s were fairly vocal about the truths if history. So, what are your suggestions as to what we might do to further right the written and taught wrongs?
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Laura, thanks for the comments. As for you question about my suggestions “to further right the written and taught wrongs?”, although I was not a history major at Queens College, sounds like the basis for a future post. Thanks again for reading and commenting.
Laura, I mentioned in previous reply that your suggestion might lead to another post. I’m working on one now. Would you mind if I quoted from your comments?
Ted. thanks for teaching the truth. I was educated in the 1950s, I remember learning history from a book while the teacher continually told us that Truman was a horrible leader. I have giant holes in my education, and now that I’m in my 8th decade, I’m learning every day. While horrors have happened in my lifetime, I am seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel. I believe that there continues to be a new awareness regarding how we stole from the Native Americans, slavery and The Holocaust. I’m seeing baby steps toward a new understanding, but it will take time. We have to convince the haters that their lies will not be tolerated in education.
Appreciate the comments. “…convincing the haters that their lies will not be tolerated in education,” won’t be an easy job, given the current political climate,
as I wrote in the follow-up piece, “Education — then and now.”