John Oliver took on American history last night. And thank God, it's time someone did it. (My personal theory is that history classes took a downward dive for a very simple reason: They're taught far too often by teachers who are ex-jocks hired for their ability to also coach extracurricular sports -- and not for their knowledge of and ability to engage students in understanding America's complicated past.)
“And I’m gonna warn you—you’re about to hear the ‘N-word,’ a lot.” That’s John Oliver during his main Sunday story on Last Week Tonight, and while he was providing a content warning to the caught-on-tape, supervillain-style political “Southern Strategy” of infamous Republican strategist Lee Atwater, such a preamble could precede basically any in-depth discussion of American history. You know, because of the way that white supremacy was baked into the very foundational documents of American democracy and all. And if your hackles are already up at mentions of the Fugitive Slave Clause or that whole “black people are valued at three-fifths of white people” parts of the Constitution, well, you’re either Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and/or a white product of the American public school system.
Oliver—fully acknowledging the sandy ground his British butt is speaking from, racist history-wise—spent a solid half-hour schooling America on how its codified and disseminated version of its own past continues to be part of an Atwater-esque plan to ensure the persistence of white supremacy by presenting “misleadingly comfortable versions of history.” How comfy? Well, there are textbooks referring to the forced labor of slaves as “chores,” or one Alabama text’s scolding of those “lazy” and “disobedient” enslaved Black people who didn’t uncomplainingly do what they were told. (Even though masters, according to the book taught to innumerable children for generations, sometimes threw their abused and exploited fellow human beings a nice BBQ.) Or, as one clip showed, one Black Tulsa resident explaining how he made it all the way to college before being informed about the white supremacist massacre of the thriving Black community that existed right in his own neighborhood. And don’t even get Oliver started on the only coup d’etat on American soil, when a white mob murdered 60 Black people, removed the elected city government of Wilmington, North Carolina, and replaced said government with white supremacists. (No, you didn’t learn about that in history class, either.)