When I was in middle school, I had a social studies teacher who we affectionately called Mr. J. A beyond brilliant man and public education advocate who landed in my Philadelphia public school after getting his Masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania. He was charming, funny but most importantly unbelievably passionate about teaching alternative narratives to disengaged middle schoolers. We read many excerpts from Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States which instilled in me a need, fueled by fire, to follow Zinn and Mr. J in their valiant conquest for the underlying truth: the hidden historical narrative. Trump’s 1776 commission that he announced last Thursday is a right wing nationalist attempt at preventing teachers like Mr. J from molding burgeoning scholars and fostering their fight for pulling historical actors from oblivion. Trump wants to use federal mandates to teach a top-down narrative that replaces Zinn as an attempt to “restore patriotism.” Trump claims that educational curriculum, cancel culture, and the “mob on the street” are trying to “to silence dissent, to scare you out of speaking the truth, and to bully Americans into abandoning their values, their heritage, and their very way of life” as if this has not been the American ethos the Founding Fathers had acted on when they included Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution: the Three Fifths Compromise.
In this essay I intend on using academic scholarship to illuminate the harm that the 1776 commission speech will cause. I argue that the efforts Trump is making appeal to the ultra-right wing nationalists at its core and present to us a new crisis wrought upon the American public by the current administration. Silencing academics, controlling historical narratives taught in schools, and preventing federal institutions from “misrepresenting” our nation’s history as one built upon the backs of slaves will fundamentally alter generations of Americans. The history of the United States in many ways is one of two steps forward, three steps back. As grassroots organizers tirelessly pour their life into work, Trump uses their peaceful protests and calls for action as a methodological device in “combating race” and his speech on September 17th as a way to represent what he sees as “divisive concepts,” “malign ideology,” and the desecration of American ideals. It is critical for us to analyze his use of language in these documents as a way of building hegemony and encouraging his following to adopt a white washed history of the United States in the name of patriotism. Nothing here is coincidence. I will admit that I have no doubt that Trump did not write this speech. But he believes in its content. And so does his following.
What follows will be a messy, emotional attempt at reading these sources and stuffing them with academic opinion and preexisting historiography that will hopefully prove the utter danger this rhetoric puts our democracy in. In much of my work I end up swimming in Gramsci’s theory of Cultural Hegemony, which I will inevitably impose here as well. Much of Gramsci’s greatest theories were written from his prison cell between 1929 – 1935 after he was arrested by Mussolini’s government in 1926. As Trump’s party begins to look more like Mussolini’s, it is imperative to compare their tactics of control. As you read this, please keep in mind that this is an essay I have written and researched in just a few hours. I am writing this without a working outline, without a peer editor or advisor, so bear with me. Chronology will be as follows: analysis of the speech, potential consequences, and a conclusion. While I initially intended on doing the speech and the Executive Order, I will have to focus on just the speech for now. It is not complete and ultimately will evolve as Trump inevitably gives us more material. It is emotional because I am so invested in preventing historical narratives from being silenced. I am defending Zinn, other scholars, and the teaching of bottom up history in the public education curriculum. I am defending Black and Brown Americans and the emotional labor it takes to run federal bias training programs. I am defending bias training programs. I am working to defend teachers who seek to restore Black and indigenous agents as central figures in American history. I vehemently defend Mr. J and what he did for me and my classmates as if my life depends on it. Because it does.
In the first few seconds of Trump’s speech on September 17th, he says “to grow up in America is to live in a land where anything is possible, where anyone can rise, and where any dream can come true – all because of the immortal principles our nation’s founders inscribed nearly two and a half centuries ago” (emphasis added). Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz would argue otherwise. In her book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States she argues that the United States of America was formed through generations of settler colonialism that emerged out of the active practice of “white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft,” positioning the founding moment as one undetachable from white supremacy and racism. With a founding like this, and an absolute failure on the part of the nation to reconcile with the genocide enacted on indigenous Americans, the nation cannot in any way be understood as one founded on equality. Further in his speech he says
In order to radically transform America, they must first cause Americans to lose confidence in who we are, where we came from, and what we believe. As I said at Mount Rushmore — which they would love to rip down and it rip it down fast, and that’s never going to happen — two months ago, the left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.
If one recalls, Mount Rushmore rests in the Paha Sapa (the Black Hills), a scared site used by the Lakota Sioux, stolen from them effectively in 1876 under the Indian Appropriations Bill. Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the site, known as a “shrine for democracy’ by the federal government… is anything but that; rather it is a shrine of in-your-face-illegal occupation and colonialism.”
What we see here is Trump using the Mount Rushmore memorial as the symbol for democracy without understanding the blatant irony of his own words. The degree of silencing indigenous narratives simply the first few minutes of this speech is unbearable to anyone with any basic knowledge of the founding of our country.
Next, Trump comes for Zinn. Trump argues that Zinn’s work is meant to make students ashamed of their own history (I want to also note that I do not believe Trump has read Zinn, even seen the book jacket, nor has the intellectual capacity to read a 688 page book). An example of material that makes people feel shame, which most likely set this entire thing off, is the 1619 Project conducted by critical race theorists and recent Howard Law graduates for the New York Times. He exclaims that “This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” The 1619 Project, which if you have not gotten a chance to engage with, you should (I will link in footnotes), aims to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” a revisionist history that uses first person narrative to animate the continued effects of slavery. The project has shortcomings, especially in its discussion of the American Revolution being fought on the grounds of protecting slavery, but ultimately serves as an interactive site full of first person accounts. If Trump were to have criticized it for its accuracy in representing motives for the break from the British, there could be some legitimacy there. Instead however he lands on the construction of America being one built on freedom. I think that many, many Black Americans would have to disagree with this statement.
Tiya Miles book The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (2017) argues that even cities like French occupied Detroit in never slave state Michigan constituted a slave society much like the rest of the United States. Through legal loopholes French, British and American colonists owned slaves of both African and indigenous decent in the 1800s in Detroit. African men’s bodies were used as modes of transportation in the French fur trade in the 18th century and therefore occupied a space of constant bodily danger. Slaves in Detroit were constantly separated from their families. Their history is one wrecked by white supremacy. Miles works to reanimate archival silence effectively, giving voice back to those who fought for their freedom. Ed Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism tells a history of the interstate slave trade that followed the closure of the international slave trade (even though America profited more on the international slave trade in the immediate years following its abolition). These books, a tiny tiny minority in the history of slavery in the south emphasize the ways slavery commanded American understanding at every juncture. Slavery was not isolated to cotton plantations in the south. Slavery existed in some form or another in colonial citites in America and was the mode of production for America for centuries. To deny that America is founded on oppression is an ahistorical narrative that should not need to be explained to anyone. A fourth grader should have enough basic history to narrate this. To think that Trump and his administration are attempting to prevent this type of material from circulating is an unbelievably sad thought.
Trump argues that America’s founding “set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history,” which to some of this I don’t even know how to respond. How do we think of Breonna Taylor and read this? How do we consider the forced removal of Mexican women’s reproductive organs in contrast to this? Where do the Native boarding schools fit among “the most fair”? Children starving in ICE deportation camps? Homeless Americans prevented from applying for housing because of their drug addiction? Black women being forced to consent to long acting contraceptive devices in order to receive welfare? Black men being incarcerated at inconceivably high rates? What about the non-violent, immuno-compromised inmates detained during the COVID19 crisis? Modern day slavery that flourishes in the American prison industrial complex? What about your every day museum educator who is paid poverty wages to teach material that is being threatened under Trump? Who’s civil rights have we secured? And, have we really defeated fascism?
Trump considers teaching K-12 students a doctrine not aligned with the notion of the benign America as “child abuse.” He calls on “patriotic moms and dads” to police their child’s historical education. He tells them to not accept “indoctrination.” Let’s talk about patriotic indoctrination.
First I want to position myself as someone who is critical of Gramsci’s cultural hegemony. I do not think it is all encompassing, but an important theoretical lens to talk about Trump. Gramsci theorized that groups in power maintain their position through both coercive power (law enforcement, legal system, carceral state) and consent created by hegemony in civil society. Consent is more important to Gramsci than coercive power. Cultural hegemony is achieved through legitimation by the dominant class through participation in various institutions and social interactions within them. One of the most powerful institutions used to build hegemony is public education. By teaching children “approved” narratives, in this case those that uphold patriotic sentiments and work to make white children feel better, the government builds a consenting, hegemonic cultural force. I think it is important to note that it is not and will not be only children affected by this: parents too will find legitimation in ahistorical narratives. The cultural hegemony that Trump looks to achieve is one bound in nationalism. Nationalism that celebrates the Great White Man and fails to reconcile with Americas original sin.
Trump argues that “The only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans. That is why it is so urgent that we finally restore patriotic education to our schools.” I think Gramsci would be intellectually excited by this statement. It is explicit in its aim: “We will save this cherished inheritance for our children, for their children, and for every generation to come.” The “cherished inheritance” he wishes to save is one that pushes Black Americans to the side. That completely erases the existence of indigenous Americans prior to 1776, perpetuating the violent American genocide at every turn. A “cherished inheritance” that condemns Black Lives Matter for peacefully protesting. The “cherished inheritance” is an American history that starts with George Washington and ends with Trump.
The “patriotic education” that Trump wants is the opposite of what patriotic education should be. Patriotic education should be work towards illuminating silence in the archive with federally funded projects; it should be K-12 curriculums that include Black and indigenous history at the forefront, not as optional classes; it should be museum work like what the Smithsonian had done that positions America as the country for white men that it is. Patriotic education should not be about silencing academics, teachers, or students. As we veer right on Trump’s path towards ultra-right wing nationalism (one of the most dangerous string of words out there), we look into the void. Though there must be room for hope and counter-hegemony. A carving of action within a system designed to prevent it. Gramsci would call for a “war of position,” a method of radical social change that starts with the way an individual acts within the paradigm of choice. Alternative institutions shape our ability to imagine what is feasible. We must engage in this now.
Anthony Arnove’s introduction to A Peoples History of the United States reminded me this morning that despite Trump’s attempt at altering the future by silencing the past, the work we do and have done will not be erased. Arnove talks of Zinn’s book as “an embodiment of Howard’s wager on optimism….. we cannot rely on elected officials or leaders but instead have to rely on our individual and collective actions; that change never happens in a straight line but always has ups and downs, twists and turns; and that there are no guarantees in history.” I think I will continue to think about this and the ways in collective action and counter-hegemony community flourishes and work only gets better. I hope with all of my being that nationally imposed history curriculums are never a thing and that the “cherished inheritance” of patriotic education becomes an antique. This essay is not an attempt to say that the education children receive today, or under Obama for example, is complete, because it is not. But there has been room for advocates and activists to force young Americans to reconcile with the truth. By revoking the limited freedom educators have today and exchanging it for patriotic education we enter a new era of silence. And God do I hope that universities receiving federal grant money never have to struggle with making work palatable to Trump. If that becomes the case I am afraid my life in academia may be over before it ever began.
Finally, I want to thank Mr. J, the late Dr. Doughty, Dr. Onaci, Dr. Daggar, and Dr. Simon for always pushing the boundaries of historical narratives and for inspiring in me the desire to do the same. I worry deeply for the fate of educators who want children and adults to learn the history of Black and Brown Americans. I know what is at stake is limitations are imposed. I hope to come back to this essay to add more narrative, historical voice, and opinion but, I also hope that this stupid little speech given by Trump fades into the oblivion of history like so many forgotten and unrecorded narratives of Americans before us. I hope I never hear the phrase “cherished inheritance” again.
Image: Mark Humphrey/AP
 Donald J Trump, “Remarks by President Trump at the White House Conference on American History,” Speech, National Archives Museum, Washington D.C., September 17th 2020.
 Walter Adamson, Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory, (Brattleboro, Vermont: Echo Point, 1980): 101.
 Trump, “Remarks.”
 Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press: 2014), 2.
 Ibid, 180.
 Trump, “Remarks”
 1619 Project, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html, 2019.
 Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits, (New York, New York: The New Press) 2017.
 Eliga Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).
 Trump, “Remarks.”
 E Colin Ruggero, “Gramsci and the War of Position,” https://warofposition.com/94#:~:text=Cox%20succinctly%20describes%20a%20’war,Cox%2C%201983%3A165).
 Trump, “remarks”
 Ruggero, “Gramsci”
 Anthony Arnove, “Introduction,” In A Peoples History of the United States by Howard Zinn, (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003): XXI.