Thoughts for Sunday

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The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see…

This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy.

Surely I will be called naive, unrealistic, and sentimental, and I will be accused of ignoring the “real” problems, the structural evils that underlies much of human misery. But God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns…

For me it is amazing to experience daily the radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics seek darkness wherever they go. They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes. They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental. They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior. They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by “escapist emotions.” But in belittling God’s joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.

People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness…

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

What Can We Learn From Three Generations of Black Evangelical Protest Books?

In the world of evangelical publishing, there have been three distinct waves of books about race and/or racism written or co-authored by black evangelicals.

The first wave came in the civil rights and black power era from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. There was Howard Jones’ Shall We Overcome? in 1967; 1968 brought Bill Pannell’s My Friend, The Enemy and Tom Skinner’s Black and Free; in 1970 there was Columbus Salley and Ronald Behm’s Your God Is Too White and Skinner was back with How Black Is The Gospel?; in 1971 there was Bob Harrison’s When God Was Black.

The second wave came on the heels of the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. The following year, 1993, brought a flood of evangelical race books with black authors or co-authors, including: Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein, Breaking Down Walls; Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals; Bill Pannell, The Coming Race Wars?; and John Perkins, Beyond Charity.

The third wave is happening now, in the era of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. It includes books like Bryan Loritts’ Insider Outsider; Eric Mason’s Woke Church (both 2018), and Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise (published earlier this year).

This is not to say that similar books haven’t been published at other times. John Perkins’ With Justice for All originally came out in 1982. Ed Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues appeared in 2006. But if you survey the the landscape across time, it seems clear that there are three distinctive peaks when books like these become more prominent. What’s going on here?

Before I suggest a few possibilities, let me add a caveat or two. These books are very different from one another. Pannell’s caustic commentary in 1968 is an entirely different approach from Spencer Perkins’ wooing of white evangelical audiences in 1993. They’re separated by time and context. And in a field of books that lean heavily toward blends of theology and memoir, you could argue that Tisby’s book doesn’t belong at all.

With that said, here are a few things that seem of interest to me:

Irony: the content of the books is misaligned with the circumstances of their publication. These books, almost invariably, express a great deal of hope–or disappointment, or both–in the church. They call upon the church to demonstrate unity across lines of race and thereby lead society toward racial “reconciliation” (or justice, or understanding, as the case may be). Many of them express the firm belief that only the church can ultimately solve racial problems. And yet, the circumstances of their production make it clear that these books are overwhelmingly a product of changes in American society. Whether they’re responding to the rise of black power, or the LA Riots, or Black Lives Matter, there is clearly a sense in which these books are following society.

To some extent, this is a publishing story. It’s not as though Howard Jones needed someone to tell him that racism in the church was a problem. But by the later 1960s, publishers began to see a market for evangelical commentary on what had become an explosive issue in society. Likewise, when unsettling evidence of ongoing racial division and injustice became harder to ignore in the 1990s, evangelical publishers again responded with what was purported to be a distinctly evangelical (and superior) approach to dealing with racial problems. Now, in a new era of racial tension, we’re seeing another opening for black evangelical voices among the big evangelical publishing companies. Black evangelicals who might not have had a platform at other times are more likely to find one in these moments.

But it’s not just a publishing story. It is also a story of successive generations of black evangelicals becoming more race-conscious under the pressure of social transformations. For Pannell, the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing made him realize he couldn’t be a regular evangelical anymore. When he defended black power in 1968, he wasn’t stating longstanding views that publishing gatekeepers now allowed to be aired. Events had radicalized him.

In other cases, outside events may provide the occasion for black evangelical critiques more than the cause. When Christianity Today did its “Myth of Racial Progress” issue in 1993 and asked dozens of black evangelical leaders for comments, they responded with scathing reviews of the white evangelical movement. For many, their pessimism was earned through decades of hard experience trying to navigate white evangelical spaces. The Los Angeles Riots set the context for the discussion, but it certainly wasn’t the basis of black evangelical criticism.

Our own era seems more analogous to the 1970s than the 1990s. The palpable influence of black power and the new black theology on younger black evangelicals in the early 1970s has strong echoes today in the way black evangelicals, from Lecrae to Tisby and Loritts and many others, have become disenchanted with white evangelicalism. Crucially, it was not primarily events within the church that drove this transformation. Rather, events on the outside, especially police shootings, combined with white evangelicals’ response to these events, heightened black evangelicals’ sense of themselves as black people in a white movement that was indifferent to their identities and concerns. They began to see with new eyes some of the pathologies of the movement that may not have seemed as obvious a decade ago.

This is especially poignant because it so exactly rhymes with the experiences of generations of black evangelicals. One of the most common refrains describes an initial honeymoon period in white evangelicalism followed by disillusionment. Many black evangelicals were enamored with the supposed theological rigor of white evangelical institutions. Many also imagined that racism wouldn’t be a problem precisely because they were in an evangelical space. The theological assumptions invested in these hopes (after all, isn’t the church called to be united in Christ? Aren’t evangelicals the ones upholding the true gospel?) made it all the more wrenching when they were revealed as illusory.

We have to be careful here. It’s not as though the current generation of black evangelicals thought everything was fine in evangelicalism until Ferguson. But the shift from innocence to alienation is real. What are we to make of the fact that every generation of black evangelicals since the civil rights movement seems to have experienced this rude awakening?

Recent Fiction Roundup

In the past couple months I’ve been on a bit of a fiction binge. This isn’t normal for me but I’ve needed an escape from my work and TV doesn’t seem to work anymore. My approach to fiction-reading is not particularly sophisticated. I browse the prizewinner lists and go from there.

Here’s a roundup of my reading binge. As is always the case when people share what they are reading, this is partly an exercise in vanity. But it also reflects my curious impulse to see the book covers gathered in one place.

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The full title of this book might as well be Union Atlantic: This is America (and It’s as Bad as You Feared). Some of the themes in Adam Haslett’s more recent book are evident here, but without the redeeming factor of being truly interesting. A depressing book with a revolting character who, as so often in our time (or every time?), never really receives the comeuppance you wish for him.

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A slow-burning, small story that didn’t grab me. At the end Maud finally seems poised to escape her suffocating existence. But getting there is a dreary catalogue punctuated by sex. Lots of sex. The picture painted of Indian life in 1920s Oklahoma is fascinating even if it doesn’t seem to burst into full color.

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A beautiful book. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The two women at the center of the story seem almost like archetypes, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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The first half of this book expertly carried a sense of looming calamity. But after the cathartic event, the second half of the book flagged. I also got tired of everyone stumbling around drunk all night and sleeping all day. Lots of people go to college without living like this! I enjoyed The Goldfinch more (but that one was strange too!)

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A weird and wonderful book. With Franzen, it may be strange and obnoxious, but you don’t want to put it down. Definitely better than his first one, and I think on the level of his later more highly-regarded books.

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This is the one I’m getting into now. So far it has a really appealing tone: light, unassuming, very accessible.

God with Us: A Conversation with Ansley Quiros

Ansley L. Quiros is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Alabama. Her new book, God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976, is available now.

Curtis: What is the main argument of God with Us?

Quiros: The struggle over civil rights was not, for many, just about lunch counters and waiting rooms or even access to the vote; it was also about Christian orthodoxy. God with Us examines this theological struggle through the story of one southern town–Americus, Georgia–where ordinary Americans both sought and confronted racial change in the twentieth century.

Curtis: What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?

Quiros: For me, the most challenging aspect of actually writing the book was balancing the narrative and the historical argument. I found myself, at moments, getting swept up in the story and momentarily abandoning the analysis, and then at others interrupting the sweep of events with more abstract historical musings. Balancing those impulses– presenting a swift narrative while also making a real argument—proved difficult but I’m thankful to great editors and readers who helped smooth the whole thing out. One thing that was delightful to realize was how even one careful word can hold the thread of analysis, one name drop can keep a story in mind.

Curtis: Your book is very theological and it wears that on its sleeve. Did you get pushback from other historians? It seems to me that historians, theologians, and religious studies scholars are often talking past each other even if we’re writing about similar things. Was it difficult for you to situate your book disciplinarily?

Quiros: It was, but just a bit. After an initial explainer of my choice to foreground theology, I found most historians to be quite supportive. Most know instinctively that historical research has tended to diminish the role of faith in people’s lives, not the institutions so much, but the content and effects of belief in the past. This is partly because these things are obviously difficult to get at, but also because the academy can skew secular. The religious studies/theology folks I spoke to occasionally wanted more theologizing, but most understood this was primarily a history book and appreciated the effort to bring lived theology into the conversation.

Curtis: You make a point of showing that white southern Protestants had theologies of segregation that were robust, sincerely held, and internally consistent. In doing so, I think you make a convincing argument against the cultural captivity thesis. Was that something you knew early on in the project you wanted to do, or did it take shape as your research developed?

Quiros: This actually developed as I read David Chappell’s work and the responses from Charles Marsh and Jane Dailey in particular. Truly, this question of theology and culture/politics —the chicken and the egg in some senses—is a perplexing one. On different days, especially in our current political moment, I find myself wondering about it. (I did so here, in fact!)

Curtis: Where do you see the field going from here? What is next for you?

Quiros: I don’t know where the field will go from here, but I think broad evangelical support for the Trump Administration and what I see as consistently racist policies will provide a lot of fodder! As for me, I have two projects in the works. One is an exploration of the Atlanta street party known as Freaknik. It’s a wild story, but one that reveals much about the city of Atlanta, the rise of the black new South, and the limits of black governance in the multicultural 1990s. The other project is spiritual biography of Charles and Shirley Sherrod, racial justice activists who have spent their lives in Southwest Georgia. I guess I’m not done with Georgia yet!

A Review of Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise

In a note to the reader at the beginning of his monumental study of Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois announced, “I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings, realizing that this attitude will from the first seriously curtail my audience.” Du Bois frankly announced that he was “not trying to convince” the white supremacist majority. He understood that he had to assume certain truths so he could get on with the business of useful scholarship. Americans who didn’t already know the self-evident truth of black equality needed more help than Du Bois could give them.

There is an echo of this sensibility in the beginning of Jemar Tisby’s new book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. As a prominent black voice in the small world of evangelical racial justice discussions, Tisby has become well-acquainted with a committed cadre of racist evangelicals who loudly attack Christians who dare to oppose racism. So in his introduction he anticipates the critics who will dismiss him as “liberal” or “Marxist,” or accuse him of “abandoning the Gospel.” After naming these criticisms, Tisby turns to his real audience, the people who are willing to be persuaded, and says, “After reading just a few chapters, these arguments will sound familiar. These arguments have been used throughout the American church’s history to deny or defend racism.”

Tisby is not DuBois, and it’s not 1935, but it still takes a certain fortitude to put this book out with the knowledge that it will be systematically misrepresented, its author slandered and maligned. So Tisby knows his audience. And he wants to try to reach people who are open to learning. Those acting in bad faith, he implies, are just another sad example of the centuries-long history he’s tracing.

Now, what of the book itself? It is a 400-year survey of American Christianity’s complicity in racism. Along the way, Tisby tries to keep several key themes in view: the worst abuses of American racial systems have been enabled by Christian complicity; it didn’t have to be this way (history is contingent); and racism adapts over time.

Tisby understands something that many academic scholars struggle to practice: the public is actually eager to engage history, but people want to learn from the past more than they want to learn about the past. This can make us uncomfortable because it is a presentist and morally-charged posture toward history. Still, we need to try to engage the public on precisely this level.

That’s what Tisby does. In the chapter on “Making Race in Colonial America,” Tisby writes, “Through a series of immoral choices, the foundations were laid for race-based stratification. Yet if people made deliberate decisions to enact inequality, it is possible that a series of better decisions could begin to change this reality.” As historical analysis, historians might shrug at this (or even wince!). But as popular history told with moral urgency, this is pitch perfect.

A 400-year survey in a slim volume like this is an ambitious task—probably too ambitious. Tisby seems most at home in the civil rights era, where the argument is clear, the anecdotes well-chosen, and the complicity of the church horrifyingly apparent.

At other points, the link between the historical events being traced and the complicity of the church in racism becomes tenuous. At times, such complicity is asserted more than it is shown. In some cases, Tisby makes powerful use of the testimony of black Christians to drive home his points (Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography is quoted to good effect), but other anecdotes feel like a lost opportunity. We learn, for example, what Ida B. Wells thought of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, but not of her scorching criticisms of D.L. Moody’s compromises with white supremacy.

In parts of the narrative I wished for less historical survey and more complicity. It is doubtful that any reader approached the book expecting to learn that dysentery was the leading disease killer of civil war soldiers, or that the New Deal created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. These digressions did not shed light on Christian complicity.

None of these critiques should overshadow the broader achievement: the ordinary Christians to whom Tisby is writing are likely to find much in this book that they’ve never heard before. More importantly, they are likely to be disturbed and inspired.

Tisby concludes the book with a series of recommendations to take action against racism now. It’s a helpful set of suggestions running the spectrum from mundane actions that ordinary people can take to mass movements that, right now, seem impossible. But the urgency of the moment and the scale of the problem require us to imagine beyond what seems possible.

I was most struck by Tisby’s call for “ecclesiastical reparations.” This is not a reprise of the 1969 Black Manifesto. He intends to enlighten rather than shame, and he comes across as an activist-thinker with earnest suggestions rather than all-or-nothing demands. He writes, “Churches could lead society by independently declaring a literal or figurative ‘year of Jubilee’ for black people. They could pool resources to fund a massive debt forgiveness plan for black families. Or they could invest large amounts into trust funds for black youth…”

The simple logic and justice of proposals like these can at once inspire action and serve as an indictment of the church. Why indictment? Because most white Christians would probably leave their churches before they give their money to such a productive and just cause. And so the work of undoing the church’s complicity in racism continues.

It took many decades for Du Bois’s achievements to be truly recognized. Let’s hope evangelicals don’t wait so long to admit that Tisby was right.

The Vietnam War Through the Eyes of An 8-Year-Old

A good boy supporting the war like his mama told him.

Last night my son John (he’s 8) was reading a biography of Coretta Scott King. The book included a section on her views of the Vietnam War. This left John confused. He asked me why the United States attacked Vietnam in the first place.

I tried to explain it but it turned out he didn’t know what communism or the Cold War were, so I had a lot of background information I needed to fill in. After I tried to define those terms, I concluded with something like this:

“So American leaders thought that if Vietnam became a fully communist country, other countries in that part of the world would become communist too, and that would make it harder to win the Cold War.”

John sat up (he had been laying in bed getting ready to go to sleep) and an incredulous smile flashed across his face. “So…” he said, “they were afraid they were going to lose the Cold War so they started a real war?” Then he burst out laughing.

I love this boy.

More Adventures in Bad Children’s History Books

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I’ve written before about bad history books for kids. The latest entry on our shelf is the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Civil War, picked up at our local library. The Eyewitness series is very kid-friendly because it is full of colorful photographs and lots of interesting information about weapons and technology and the way things work. Its historical narratives, however, may leave something to be desired.

In this particular book, the problem starts on the cover. Children are invited to “Discover the war that turned brother against brother—from the birth of the Confederacy to Reconstruction.”

This is a romantic, white-centered reconciliationist framing of the war as a tragic event. It takes a highly atypical scenario–brothers fighting on opposing sides–and turns it into the quintessential experience of the war. In the decades after the war, many white Americans made sense of the bloodletting by trying to forget what the war had been about. Slavery, a social revolution, emancipation—these were glossed over in favor of a struggle between two noble sides, figurative American brothers caught in a tragic conflict.

I’m sure there is a whole historiography on the origins and uses of this “brother against brother” narrative which civil war specialists can fill us in on. I don’t remember what Blight says about it in his Race and Reunion. But suffice it to say for now, in a war that mobilized some three million combatants from sectionalized societies, the brother against brother experience was not the norm. But it was highly symbolic of how the white supremacist mainstream wanted to remember the war.

A far more typical experience of the civil war was the transition of four million Americans from slavery to freedom. It was there that family dramas really played out, as formerly enslaved people sought to reconstitute family ties slavery had broken. But you won’t find this on the cover because the publisher unwittingly assumes that atypical experiences should be privileged because they align with a long tradition of white memory.

Within the text itself, here are the first sentences of the book:

What rights does a state enjoy? Can it ignore a federal law with which it does not agree? Americans had been arguing about the powers of the national government versus the rights of the states longer than they had been arguing about slavery.”

The basic problem here is that the factual claim is incorrect. Obviously, arguments over slavery predated the existence of the national government! The broader problem is that though the book will go on to talk about slavery in some detail, here at the outset it is framing the civil war at the widest angle as a states’ rights struggle. This is a lie. It’s a lie that former confederates started telling immediately after the war to try to rehabilitate their cause. 150 years later, it’s still finding its way into our kids’ history books.

Finding Community In A Book Tour

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John Fea is on the road for his new book. Today he reflects on the experience thus far:

As I talk with the folks who come to these events for Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, a narrative seems to be emerging.  People are deeply troubled about the state of evangelical Christianity in America.  Last night I heard stories of men and women deeply scarred by experiences with authoritarian, politically-driven evangelical Christianity.  Some have left evangelicalism for the Protestant mainline.  Others have left Christianity entirely.  Still others are in search of a more hopeful Christianity.  Evangelical pastors are wondering how they can minister to congregations divided by politics.

These people are telling me their stories–sometimes through tears.  The other night I spoke with an evangelical Christian who said that he felt more at home with the people he met at the book signing than he did at his own evangelical church.  What does this say about the state of the evangelical church?

I expected a lot of knock-down, drag-out political debates on this book tour.  Instead I am hearing from a lot of hurting people.  I am trying to offer encouragement and prayers.  But mostly I am just trying to listen.

This sounds about right. Of course, the people who show up to a bookstore to hear an anti-Trump evangelical author talk about his work are a self-selecting group. My question is how large this group is. I was just in the library this morning looking at some alienated and angry white evangelicals in the 1980s! I see lots of anecdotal evidence that the sense of alienation from evangelicalism is larger now than it was then, more pervasive. But we will probably have to wait several years for the trend lines to become clear.

Civility Is A Strange Hill To Die On

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John Stennis, one of the most civil white supremacists you’ll ever see.

A restaurant owner asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave and suddenly we’re all debating the future of the republic. Civility or else! We’ve been here before. In my article on the colorblind consensus in the 1990s, I show how the idea of civility was integral to the memorialization of white supremacists in mainstream media. Here’s what I had to say about Mississippi Senator John Stennis:

Stennis had long embodied a particular kind of civility—what William H. Chafe in his classic study of the black freedom movement and white establishment in Greensboro called “a way of dealing with people and problems that made good manners more important than substantial action.” As the memorialization of Stennis would reveal, this sense of civility still held considerable purchase in the white American imagination. As the nation remembered the career of one of its longest-serving senators, Stennis’s civility loomed larger than his policy aims. Many memorializers held up civility as an ultimate good, without scrutinizing the limitations of Stennis’s brand of civility or the white supremacist purposes for which he deployed it.

To be historically minded is to understand that civility has often been used as a deliberate strategy to oppress people. This fact does not in itself mean that we should be actively uncivil. But it should give us pause and remind us that there are higher values–love, justice, peace—which are far more sturdy and uncomfortable and disruptive to the status quo than the concept of civility.

How Children’s History Books Teach Kids Whose Lives Really Matter

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Going to the library and picking up some history books for your kids seems like a wholesome activity, right? Be careful, it’s actually very treacherous terrain! The books you give your kids might be teaching them to be racist. You won’t know it if you’re only on the lookout for overtly offensive passages. You have to pay attention to what’s not there.

Yesterday we went to Valley Forge National Park. In advance of our trip, we picked up the Magic Tree House nonfiction book on the American Revolution. I started reading it to my kids. Whoooo boy.

The book begins by explaining what colonies were and how people got there:

People often sailed from Europe and Britain to begin new lives in the colonies. Some came for freedom to worship as they pleased. Others came for land. Still others came for work.

Red flags. Alarm bells. Why is it only describing why Europeans came? A page after describing what the trip was like, there is a brief aside:

The colonies also had slaves, who were brought over from West Africa. Most slaves lived on large farms called plantations in the southern colonies. They worked in the fields or as house servants.

There were also American Indians in the colonies. They were there long before the colonists arrived. Many lost their lands as the colonies grew larger.

This is a master class in passive voice and obfuscation. “slaves…were brought…” by who knows who. Indians “lost their lands as the colonies grew larger” because this was inexorable and there was somehow losing without taking. Worse, by putting this material in a separate section after describing why and how people came to the colonies, the authors have made the curious decision to explain what it was like for Europeans to come to America while not describing the same for Africans. They’re reinscribing the hierarchy rather than explaining it.

The next chapter is titled, “Life in the Colonies.” It describes technology, material culture, work, food, education, dress, and the gendered experience of children. It does not mention the experiences of enslaved people or Native Americans. Not. One. Time. After this chapter the groundwork is laid and the rest of the book is a narrative of the Revolution. The whole chapter on “Life in the Colonies” is actually about European life in the colonies.

It is a particular narrative masquerading as a universal one. Instead of trying to describe what colonial society was like, it affirms its exclusions. When your narrative omits vast numbers of people, you’re just reproducing the racist logic of the time: these people don’t belong in the same way; these people don’t matter as much.

These stories are extremely destructive. They teach young minds who belongs, who is important, who has a history. These narratives are racist.

I must emphasize that I’m not talking here about the difficult question of how to craft age-appropriate narratives of traumatic pasts. Good luck telling your 6-year old about the Holocaust! That is a real discussion worth having, and it’s not easy. But this is something else. It’s a deliberate decision to prevent kids from knowing, in a general and age appropriate way, what life in the colonies was like!

It would not have been even a little bit difficult for the authors to at least write a transition sentence like, “For enslaved people, life was much harder.” Then you write a few sentences about what daily life was like for them. Likewise, you mention the diverse approaches different Indian nations took to the expansion of the colonies. This is not rocket science.

I can imagine a certain kind of reader saying that my concerns smack of political correctness. This is not so. If the racism of these narratives doesn’t concern you, can I bother you with the fact that they’re false? At the time of the first census in 1790, African Americans were nearly 20% of the population. There is no good historical reason to decide not to tell kids about 20% of the people in your story. So the political correctness runs in the opposite direction. The story sacrifices historical accuracy to protect white feelings and promote a brittle kind of patriotism that can’t acknowledge the complexity of the nation’s past.

So, go ahead and get those history books from the library. But read them with your kids. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert. You only need to be able to ask some basic questions: what’s not here? Is the story doing what it is claiming to do? What is the author’s goal? What or who is being left out? I went ahead and read that awful chapter on life in the colonies to my kids. But then we debriefed.