And Now For Another Lie

When I was growing up, my mom baked a cherry pie every February in honor of George Washington’s birthday. The tradition was tied to the story about how, as a child, the first President of the United States chopped a cherry tree with his new hatchet. When his angry father confronted him, young George admitted what he had done because he couldn’t tell a lie.

The story was the basis of many elementary school lessons, and only as an adult did I learn that the story of the cherry tree was itself a lie. Author Mason Locke Weems added it, along with other heartwarming stories, to the fifth edition of his book The Life of Washington. Historians believe that Weems included the story to make Washington a virtuous role model that could influence the behavior of children.

He wasn’t alone. The history I learned in school almost always portrayed honorable men who built a perfect country on unquestionable values. In truth, the men were imperfect humans who built this country on the backs of others.

But for more than a century, history was written by people like Parson Weems, who wanted to shape it into a tool that could be used to control what people believed, and therefore how they behaved.

My elementary school classmates and I were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. We used crayons to color pictures of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria while reciting “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” No one taught us about the genocide he perpetrated on the people of Haiti.

In Junior High, I had to memorize the presidents of the United States and their accomplishments.  I was taught that Andrew Jackson was the seventh president, was nicknamed “Old Hickory” and founded the Democratic Party. I was an adult before I learned how he abused his power to remove Native Americans from their homes and was  responsible for what is now known as the Trail of Tears.

In high school, the lessons about World War II covered how America helped defeat Germany and end the Holocaust. There was never any mention about the Japanese internment camps on U.S. soil.

For the most part, what I was taught was factual. It just wasn’t truthful. America may have been established on the principles of equality and freedom, but those principles only applied to white men. When the south tried to leave the United States to preserve slavery and its economy, the Confederate message was clear: equality and freedom weren’t the most important values; power and money were.

As a nation, we are still struggling with those conflicting values.

On Thursday as I was leaving work, a pickup truck stopped in front of my office. A large confederate flag with the handwritten words ‘heritage not hate” was flying from the back. I winced.  I wanted to stop and ask what heritage meant to the driver, but I knew that would be pointless.

Some people think they have to hold on to relics of the past to justify their belief system.

Instead, we need to distinguish between erasing the past and learning from it.

We can still eat cherry pie on Washington’s birthday because we like eating cherry pie. We just shouldn’t eat it because we think it makes us more patriotic. Taking care of each other and honoring our true history is the only way to do that.

About Trina Bartlett

I live in the Eastern Panhandle of WV, with one dog, two cats, a daughter and son at West Virginia University and a husband who works strange hours. When I'm not working as a director at a nonprofit social service organization or being a mom, I can generally be found riding my bike, walking my two dogs and stirring things up.

Posted on July 5, 2020, in current affairs, history, My life, people, perspective and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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