Changing Our Manifest Destiny Story

“How’s history class going?” I asked my 8th grader recently.

“I’m a little worried,” he told me. “We’ve been talking about Manifest Destiny for awhile now, and the teacher hasn’t said anything, you know, critical about it. There aren’t many days left of school, and I’m not sure that she’s going to get to the bad parts about it.” 

He was right to be concerned: the native kids in his class shouldn’t have to hear the abuses their ancestors suffered recounted as “good” for the world, and they shouldn’t have to pretend that the disparities many of them still experience are unrelated to that history–any more than the white kids in the class should get to pretend that their riches don’t derive from the oppression of the Utes whose territories we occupy. Besides this, it’s just bad history. 

Above, The Handcart Pioneer Monument at Temple Square in Salt Lake City celebrates Mormons who walked to Utah. Me: “What are you doing in history these days?” G: “Catering to the Mormon kids in the class.”

I tease, but Mennonites are no better. We love stories of our heroic treks from the Netherlands or Ukraine or China–forgetting about how the Homestead Act and other government efforts to build a white nation, coast-to-coast, helped us out while those policies contributed to the US’s longest war (against the Apache), expanded slavery, and marginalized First Nations. 

*****

I don’t know of any real scholar who rah-rahs Manifest Destiny, but that’s still the message our school kids hear. 

Last week, the fifth grade at our area elementary school performed their musical program for parents. For the past year, our family has been negotiating this event with care. It hasn’t been easy, and I don’t think we did it well. 

The theme was American history. The program began with a comic skit in which Christopher Columbus argued with a friend (We know they were Italian because of the accents.) about whether the world was “flat-a like-a pizza” or “round-a like-a spicy meatball,” which is funny, I guess, as long as everyone knows that it was a myth that people in 15th century Europe thought the world was flat. 

More irksome was that “The Road to Kublai Khan” is all about how swell Columbus was. As a reminder, the man never set foot in the present day US, and he insisted until his death that he had landed in Asia. When you add those things to the fact that he was a genocidal, child rapist, I am not sure how you could ever justify singing his praises. 

The music teachers seem to have recognized that Columbus was a… uh… complicated figure, because they followed this up with a brief statement about how he caused a lot of pain for the native people here. This seemed like a good time, then, to “balance” children’s praises of Columbus with “Colors of the Wind,” from Disney’s Pocahontas. Now, Columbus landed in present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic, and Pocahontas, a member of the Powhatan nation, lived in the Tsenacommacah area in the present-day Tidewater area of Virginia, which is both a thousand miles away from where Columbus landed and two thousand miles away from this elementary school and the Ute and Diné, but details like that don’t matter much. I know that because the note that came home about rehearsal reminded the kids who were dancing for this number (arms folded at chest level, solemnly hopping up and down) to “wear Native American costumes.” I suspect the teachers gave themselves credit for being so PC as use “Native American” rather than “Indian” and being so “inclusive” as to include a cartoon movie song about a strong Native child. I’m not sure if it occurred to them that there might be actual music produced by actual indigenous people that students could respectfully perform. 

It only got better from there, with a song about the Revolution and George Washington, who was depicted not only as the father of our nation but as a total hottie. (“He was strong, he was tough,” the kids sang, flexing their biceps. “And he had the right stuff!” the girls sang, putting their hands adorably next to their faces, tilting their heads, and batting their eyelashes.”) Then, because even in 5th grade, most of American history is about war, we learned from a variety of children with spoken parts that “the nation was divided,” with North and South having “different ways of life.” The Civil War happened over “states rights,” “one of which” was the right to own slaves. 

Which reminds me of that old saying that the North won the war and the South won the peace. But we got to hear “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” so I guess slavery wasn’t all bad since it produced some great music! (<—sarcasm, though, really, the songs were lovely). 

Then it was on to Manifest Destiny, with “Elbow Room” from Schoolhouse Rock, which explained westward expansion as an issue of the US just getting a little too crowded, plus, like God or Destiny or Fate wanted us to farm Nebraska and dig gold in North Dakota and oil in Oklahoma:

The way was opened up for folks with bravery
There were plenty of fights
To win land rights
But the West was meant to be
It was our Manifest Destiny!

By this time, I was in tears, not because I was overwhelmed with deep patriotism or even because I couldn’t stand to see history told so badly.

I had a clearer picture of what my very sensitive, very kind 5th grader has been navigating all year. How she handled it when the teacher told her point blank that she thought people who didn’t say the pledge didn’t love their country. How she had to be on guard with every assignment for history or social studies, never feeling at ease or like she could trust her teacher. How she had to think carefully about the lyrics to these awful songs, trying to figure out what she could, in good conscience, sing; what she could be silent for; what she would have to remove herself from the sage for; and what she would have to challenge her teachers on. (“I told Mrs. T— that the line where the girls had to pretend to swoon over George Washington is heteronormative AND it’s not okay to make little girls pretend to have a crush on a grown man, even if he’s dead.” “How’d that go over?” “She said, ‘What does heteronormative’ mean?’ So I told her, and she said, ‘Well, M—, we’re not trying to be heteronormative.’ and I told her, ‘I know you’re not trying. But that’s kinda the point. That’s part of the normative.'”) 

We worked hard this year to be good parents and school supporters. M– worked hard, too–to cheer on her friends’ musical talents while also asking them to think carefully about what they were saying; to be grateful for the efforts of her teachers while also trying to make sure that they were being respectful of others; to care for the kids of color at school while not speaking for them. 

Above, American musician Eric Bibb performs “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” More music like this, please, in our children’s education. 

Listening from the audience, I think we mostly failed. M– sat out a lot of songs, and the lyrics (and costumes) didn’t change. American violence and state-sponsored oppression got celebrated in song. I felt really lonely in the audience, reminded of how far our family’s values are from the values of my neighbors, who I love and enjoy. I know better now how lonely my child has felt all year. And I failed the children and families of color in that group. 

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I wasn’t too surprised to hear Donald Trump yammering on about how Americans “tamed” the West. (I was more concerned about his claim that we will “never apologize” for how totally awesome we are/our history of genocide and slavery and colonialism, because that is an appeal to white resentment that frightens me more.) It’s what we teach our children, and he’s definitely not smarter or wiser or better read than most of the 5th graders I know. As much as I hate the story he tells of America, I know it’s one that many of my neighbors prefer. I know it’s a hard one to change. We weren’t able to change it even at one elementary school. 

As a privileged white person, I have to keep trying to change how we tell this story. (It’s a major motivation in my teaching.) But the end of the school year, though, I’m tired of trying–and I’m sure the principals of the elementary and middle schools are tired of me trying, too. 

We’re at summer now, so I am taking a little rest. But I’d love to hear from readers who have advice for how to change these stories and songs. I need some help. 

Rebecca

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