I wouldn’t say PragerU and the Florida Board of Education are whitewashing history. That assumes they’re starting with actual history to sanitize. At best, you can call it historical fiction. They use historical figures to come up with a made-up story, like what Quentin Tarantino did with Inglorious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. You wouldn’t refer to either of those movies for information about World War II and the Manson Family. Anyone who takes an objective look at history wouldn’t refer to those PragerU videos for factual information either.
Like all historical fiction, PragerU uses the past to present its views about the present. If they can convince kids that slavery was just a fact of life back then, the Founding Fathers didn’t really like it but permitted it anyway, slavery wasn’t really that bad and gave Black people useful skills and Christianity, the Civil War was just about states’ rights, and although there were a few mean people who were racists, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a beautiful speech that ended racism forever—they can ignore Black people’s demands for reparations, justice, and the end of inequality.
There is historical fiction, and there is historical fact. And you don’t have to go far to find it. I only have to go as far as the town where I grew up, Reseda, California. Homes in my neighborhood were subject to redlining and racially restricted covenants that excluded non-whites from living there. When efforts were made to end housing discrimination and integrate schools, white residents fought them through ballot initiatives and legal challenges, or they sold their homes and fled elsewhere.
It’s an uncomfortable history to reflect on. We’d much rather think about happier times, like when we played outside until the streetlights came on, drank water from the hose, and gathered around our parents’ massive 27-inch color TV in its oak cabinet to watch Bonanza. But just because we didn’t experience discrimination and prejudice ourselves doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. And pretending the painful parts of history didn’t happen won’t make them go away—or remove the consequences of those events that we experience today.
Historical fiction can help us engage with actual history. We can experience those events in ways historical accounts can’t. We can put ourselves in the event, see it as it unfolded, and share the emotions of those who lived through it. We can have empathy for those who suffered. From our perspective in the present, we can see how past events shape the world as it is today. Historical fiction can help ease children into understanding difficult historical events. Grade school children may not be ready to learn about the worst barbarities of slavery (even though enslaved children of that time had to endure them). They can be introduced to the facts in an age-appropriate way to encourage them to learn more as they grow older.
But historical fiction has to be rooted in historical fact. It’s one thing to write historical fiction about President Theodore Roosevelt. But if Teddy dons steampunk mech to battle extraterrestrial monsters, it’s sci-fi fantasy—not historical fiction. And portraying the author of “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” as a full-throated defender of unquestioning American nationalism is pure fantasy.
“History is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Where we came from. Why things are the way they are. What we had to overcome and what we have to learn.” One of my characters says this in my work-in-progress, Christina’s Portrait. The novel itself is historical fiction, and it shows how facing the past can offer us healing and growth. But we can only heal and grow by facing our past honestly—including the things we’d rather forget.