I have a lot of “soap boxes” in my life. One is that history is the most important subject to learn. Another is that we as individuals, communities, nation, and as a world, must make radical changes to save our planet.
Let’s talk about the intersection.
I teach American history to 7th and 8th graders. As part of the curriculum, we delve into the colonization of the Americas, the Triangular Trade, and the enslavement of Africans. My MA is in American history, with an emphasis on colonial enslavement, so these are always some of my favorite lessons to teach. It’s also where those seeds of climate justice can begin to be planted.
Most adults know, at some level, that the colonization of the Americas was a brutal process. 90% of indigenous Americans died as a result of disease and tens of millions of Africans were enslaved and brought to the Americas. However, what’s not often talked about is how brutal colonization was on the land as well.
Turned out, the Americas were perfect for growing cash crops (rice, tobacco, indigo, sugar, cotton, among others). With the indigenous population dying from disease and enslavement, Europeans had more access to fertile land. So what did they do?
They wrecked it.
Europeans forced their enslaved labor to cut down the forests, damed up the waterways, and burned the land, why? Those money making cash crops. They wanted gold and glory, and honestly they didn’t fucking care what it did to the people or the land – as long as they could live how they thought they should live. This goes for any colonizer, by the way. Don’t at me and tell me that the Quakers didn’t like slavery. I fucking know. They still took land and made it their own.
Colonization is the brutal extraction of resources from the land and the people that live on the land. Which, really, is no different than what hundreds of companies are doing now. This is why history is important and this is why history teachers should intersect their lessons with lessons about climate injustice.
You see, if students understand the motivations of European Colonizers, they’ll also recognize the motivations of oil companies that try to put pipelines on sacred land. If students understand the remaking and reshaping of land for capitalistic purposes, they’ll understand the continued destruction of the Amazon Rainforest. If students understand the enslavement of humans for profit, they’ll understand the use of migrant labor for farming and other industries.
Look, the “other side” (by which I mean the conservatives who think I teach some random version of CRT) try to control what’s taught in history exactly so that effective change is not made. So that the profits continue to roll in – gold and glory and all that. Therefore, it becomes essential to teach real history. The truth. Not a garbled and whitewashed version of it.
History has the power to create radical change makers, and all you have to do is connect the dots from the past to the present.