This week in the Bronx, a white teacher reportedly told her Black students to lie on the floor; she then stepped on their backs. As this is February (the shortest month of the year) we all know it is Black History Month. (“Hispanic” history month is mid-September through mid-October.) Various newspaper accounts say that advocates and parents are incensed about this apparent “lesson” on enslavement and are demanding sensitivity, anti-bias training for teachers. The New York City Department of Education says some teachers have been through such a training and more trainings are scheduled.
However, as much as I share the outrage of advocates and families, I cannot imagine a professional development training module that can adequately address a lifetime of mis-education. Sure, the professional development curriculum could invent scenarios and ask teachers to weigh in on if they think the lesson plan is racist, humiliating, historically inaccurate, intellectually meaningless, anti-Black, lacking in complete thought about people’s humanity. But the cruel truth is that few people educated in U.S. schools have ever had Black histories, and indigenous histories, and Latinx histories, and all Asian and Pacific Islands histories, and LGBT histories, and children’s histories and workers’ histories integrated into their history lessons in school.
Why do we need all these special add-ons anyway? Because our (history) teaching is not integrated. Yes, Black children’s bodies were forcibly integrated into white schools, but we never integrated the curriculum. The Chinese Exclusion Act may be dead, but the lives of Chinese in the Americas (and all “others”) has never been integrated into the curriculum.
The history of non-whites, and non-heterosexuals, and non-men is sometimes added in small doses but rarely have these people showed up in full strength and with agency. What does get taught are the most power-stripped aspects of history. Therefore, in our schools we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, but not Malcolm X and certainly not the Black Panther Party. Children read the “I Have a Dream Speech,” but never the 10 Point Program. (Which, for those of you unfamiliar with this document is still highly applicable and relevant today. See for instance, Point Number Five: “We want decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society. We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of the self. If you do not have knowledge of yourself and your position in the society and in the world, then you will have little chance to know anything else.” (Rethinking Schools))
School children learn about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, but not about Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser and Robert Smalls. Furthermore, they learn that John Brown was a crazy man rather than a white anti-racist hero. In other words: Rising up and fighting against the chattel enslavement of Black human beings and their children, and their children’s children is not discussed, or if it is discussed is labeled as violent and crazy.
What kind of upside down (AKA white supremacist) history teaching is this? We teach students that the REVOLUTIONARY WAR is to be celebrated and we sing songs about 1776, and even commemorate it each year with fireworks, but we don’t honor the Black organizers of armed resistance as they bravely planned uprisings to fight against the wholesale kidnapping and sale of entire communities of people that then reaped centuries of blood money profit off their backs? (For which we STILL have not paid reparations. See W.E.B. DuBois’ page-turning history of Black Reconstruction in America.)
When we concentrate our Black history teaching about the ways that Black people in this country have been oppressed, we risk leaving students with the view that Blacks are mostly the victims of white supremacy. (It is akin to teaching about the Holocaust and not teaching about the Warsaw Uprising.) Why not focus on Black liberation and Black revolution? Why do we celebrate the “American” revolutionaries (almost all white, you notice?) and not Black revolutionaries?
(Okay, I admit, I know the answer to that.)
I support Black Lives Matter at Schools and hope you will also.