Curriculum History

Erasures and Latin America in World History

As intellectuals from the Caribbean have long known, to be historical agents is a pre-condition to political autonomy and the right to determine on’s destiny. They have known that one cannot determine the course of a story that one has not helped to create; whether we have in the future of the world in which we live hinges on the question of whether we helped create it.

Lasso 263

This passage from the conclusion to Marixa Lasso’s brilliant book Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal holds important lessons for World History teachers. For me, the title was self evident.. I did not know the story of US imperialism forcibly relocating thousands of Panamanians from the Canal Zone. And, if I had, I might have mistakenly attributed it to flooding from the Canal. Despite discussing Panama many times in class over the past three decades, I had never imaged the Canal Zone as populated before it was built. I should have known better. Lasso’s story of the overland route across the isthmus that connected multiple world regions was familiar, but I never considered the human stories along the route.

All this should remind World History teachers of something obvious: we don’t know what we don’t know. In curricular discussions we must question why some regions go missing for long stretches of World History courses, or why people think it’s useful to cover Africa in a day. Often we do not know what we are ignoring. Such omissions and brevity are coupled with insistence that other events or developments are of overriding importance to the course of World History. For instance, I sometimes wonder how many of the teachers who consider study of the Italian Renaissance to be essential to World History do not even know what neo-Confucianism is or it’s importance in the history of the world’s largest nation? Of course World History teachers must dare to omit, we cannot cover it all or even most. But, we must be mindful of our own gaps and the implications for our students.

After the depopulation of the Zone, the US-Panama border became a highly visible space in which American model towns stood next to Panamanian slums. This contrast helped to naturalize ideas about the United States as the land of progress, modernity, and comfort, and about Panama as a traditional region in permanent need of modernization and technological aid. This new landscape can be interpreted as a spatial representation of the ideology of Western Civilization. Like other histories of the West, it created a contrast between Western Civilization and tropical backwardness by erasing the elements of their shared nineteenth- and twentieth-century history.

Lasso 245

Lasso argues that the imperial US justified removing Panamanian people in part by rhetorically erasing Panamanian modernity. For instance, white writers erased Black republicans governing themselves in isthmian towns in the nineteenth century. Lasso situates the erasure of Panamanian political modernity within James Sanders’s argument that Latin America in general was the vanguard of political modernity in the Atlantic world. I also read Sanders’s book this summer and will consider ways to foreground Latin American politics in discussion of modern political ideologies.

World history teachers must be mindful of the impact of erasing regions and peoples from our classrooms. This is an issue of educational equity and disciplinary fidelity, as I’ve noted. As Lasso notes throughout Erased the discourse of “Western Civilization” — the backbone of the legacy curriculum for World History — was created by erasing the achievements of people in the global South at the same time Western nations were deploying crude racial bigotry to justify colonialism. World History teachers need to avoid reinstantiating colonial dynamics in our class rooms, especially as our students are exposed to racist bigotry in the public sphere.

…to recall the landscape of the Canal Zone and its old towns is to remember the multiple ways in which Panamanians, West Indian immigrants, and other immigrants were co-authors of the Zone’s history. [It[ is one way to challenge the history that the United States and Europe have been telling about themselves and about others, a history in which Europe and the United States were the sole protagonists of historical changes like constitutional republicanism, representative democracy, industrialization, and global capitalism. In these histories, the inhabitants of the rest of the world had no positive role in these nineteenth-century historical changes. They were only passive recipients who were either the beneficiaries—or victims, depending on the version—of changes introduced by others. They mimicked copied, and adapted—but never created.

Lasso 262

The inverse is also very true: including global content can mean the world to students who rarely see themselves in their teachers or classroom content. As a white teacher on an overwhelmingly white staff, teaching a very white student body, it is especially important that students of color see themselves in the curriculum and in the environment of my classroom. They will rarely see themselves elsewhere in school. This year I received one of my all time favorite educational compliments as part of a lovely thank you note from an immigrant student of color. They said that I’d made a huge difference in their life because they’d “never met some one so enthusiastic and willing to learn and teach the less white washed version of history.” Note, they were very willing to learn about Europeans and other white folks, just not constantly or as a celebration. Like all great compliments this one was special because the writer understood what I am trying to do.

Doing this is not be in service of some mythic “political correctness” that seeks to deny the importance of Europeans, including settler states. Historians researching subaltern lives in Latin America are certainly interested in uncovering previously undiscussed areas of the past. Lasso and Sanders, along with Cristina Soriano in Tides of Revolution , Charles Walker in Smoldering Ashes and my gifted former student Duncan Riley in his undergraduate honors thesis, construct and revise understandings of the past by accessing underused or previously unused sources. Moreover, such moves do not erase other major historical actors. Many white Americans feature prominently in Erased, which also includes European capitalists and travelers in the story.

In fact, Panama would be an interesting position from which to see modern World History. As Lasso makes clear Panama, long before the Canal, was a crossroads of global trade and migration. Panama was the site of the first transcontinental railroad, home to communities from South and North America, East Asia, and Europe, and a site for international investment and trade. American imperialism played a prominent role, too, of course. In this way the isthmus nineteenth century resembles Southeast Asia in the late Medieval, a site from which European, Indian, and Chinese development are clearly visible.

Rethinking how we frame world history is important work. All of our students need to know that many peoples built the modern world.

Note on sources

I learned about Erased through an episode of the Historias podcast. Marixa Lasso mentions James Sanders’s Vanguard of the Atlantic World as does Lina Del Castillo in episode 55 both are worth a listen. These mentions and the recommendation of Duncan Riley motivated me to read Sanders’s book.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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