In the midst of Black History Month, let’s hope that there is sufficient mindfulness and awareness of the plague of our national history, which is the institution of slavery. No one wants to hear about it, talk about it ,nor does anyone wish to teach about it in the classroom. Has anyone really sat and reflected on the reasons for the way life is in 21st century American society. The racial, economic, and gender gaps are directly related to our founding hypocrisy.
“All men are created equal”-unless you happen to be black or brown or a woman, transgender or LGBTQ.
“…that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights….life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness“- unless black, of African, Native American, or non-European descent.
The original ‘settlers’ came to this land to escape religious persecution and to practice their faith as they so believed. Receiving help acclimating and mastering this land, climate, untouched terrain, from the peoples already here, they repaid them by basically swindling and isolating these people. As these settlers began to develop the land, for many came here with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, the tasks were difficult to complete on their own. Their bodies could not take the heat, direct sunlight, and could not survive the manual labor necessary to establish residency and thrive under their own ruling.
Native indigenous peoples could not join their labor force. They refused to do the work for them. Settlers couldn’t do the work for themselves either, and couldn’t afford to pay for that labor either. They did not arrive as people of power, privilege or prestige. They sought lives better than where they came from. Sound familiar? Today’s Mexican and other ethnic groups who seek entry and refuge from dictatorship, wars, poverty. People of African descent were here from the beginning voyages.
What is really ironic is that men and women charged and convicted as criminals in Great Britain were given sentences to be banished, exiled and shipped here to the states. The state of Georgia, an original colony, was essentially a debtor’s prison, for a long time, as crimes charged to many from England were as minor as simply being poor. Today, in parallel, we still see that the vast majority of individuals who are incarcerated in our prison system are poor, and in my opinion, commit crimes as a means of economic survival. How has that changed?
We worry about maniacal murderous criminals coming across our borders, but just as the early settlers, they too, were ordinary people seeking a better life-freedom, opportunity and refuge. But how did they become maniacal murderers and inhumane enslavers here? When did they cross that dangerous threshold? A story has it that around the colonial days, a man convicted of a crime in England, said that he would prefer to be hanged rather than journeying to America. Imagine that! What were conditions like in society during those times?
We need to teach this, with vivid illustrations and full examination of the cross-sectionality of life….at home, workplace, community. Children need to know, and know that when mistakes are made, there’s no reason to repeat them when we understand their full impact. Follow up with the U.S. Constitution for comparisons and allow them to see where we detract and contradict our own national doctrines. Encourage their critical thinking skills to apply policy to practices on an everyday basis.
So, how did we come to be founded and built on the ‘backs of African-Americans’, as enslaved people? From once indentured servants to full ownership of slaves. Growth by any means necessary! That’s the hard and horrific past and the backstory of this nation.
As we have begun to emerge from this legacy’s bequests, with many of us kicking and screaming along the way, we must never sweep our history under the proverbial rug. Instead, we must face it, understand it from both sides critically and frame it as life lessons to teach to our children. Why? Because lest we know our history[really know the whole truths], we are doomed to repeat it. Therefore, that which we hold back or sanitize for children, in the absence of clear contextualization, we thus allow our children to repeat or perpetuate similar mistakes and misdeeds.
At many points in our history, there was mere barbarism, and the absence of basic respect for all humans, human will, human kind. Surely we wish not to get back there. In history, experiences, and life events should come to life-honestly and developmentally appropriate. Even when covering horrific and cruel, trauma-inducing events, we aim to clarify the consequences, critically analyzing cause and effect. We should always end those daily lessons by cultivating empathic awareness and conclude lessons with smooth transitioning back to present day. We must teach that different is not deficient, and ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ mindsets. Teaching the Golden Rule is encouraging empathy, kindness, compassion,….justice on all fronts.
What is the point-where is the relevance to the 21st Century? It is more relevant than ever, because the persistence of ignorance, whitewashing, backlashes, and surface-level, one-sided ‘facts’ have characterized truth telling for far too long. Generations after slavery, maybe we haven’t learned much at all. Teaching is about delivering ideas and concepts which over time has relevance to our children’s lives. We are the children of the children who were and remain uninformed about their familial history, ancestral beginnings, lineage and legacy…still uninformed.
Because open discussions about slavery and racism make some feel embarrassed, ashamed, and angry, does not make it right to deny millions of young learners the opportunity to feel affirmed, learn the consequences of the absence of apathy and appreciate diversity as themselves. If we wish for children to become well-rounded individuals, better informed of not only their own history, but the history of all people, including this country’s history regarding slavery and other inhumane practices committed against others, then we must be courageous, and the first to do so if necessary. It is necessary!
Do we really know about slavery, and what it was like during those times? Yes, the stories aren’t pretty, but they are necessary for growth. Yes, there was much cruelty, but we must know what they were and the empathic awarenesses must be acquired. Children don’t have to experience it first hand, but they must know about the daily experiences of both slaves and slave owners. They must know what it meant to be black and what it meant to be white. Privilege, entitlement, housing access, career choice, discrimination, poverty and wealth are social realities which were cultivated during this time in our nation’s history.
In our nation’s public school systems, we spend less time covering and teaching about slavery than we spend illustrating the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War combined, and the latter was directly related to slavery. The period when enslavement of an entire race of people in America lasted for hundreds of years, nt a few months. Surely there was much going on, and thereby much that we should teach. We must go beneath the surface when discussing this practice, because people’s lives were completely under the control and under siege by another race. Every day, there was a teachable moment. Teach it as it was, and tell it like it is. We can then learn, honestly change all immaculate perceptions and live more peacefully in the 21st Century and beyond. When children leave the history and social studies classroom, they should be moved by emotions, yet not traumatized by the information delivery. There should be vibrant conversations, questions, respectful debates, critical examination, imagination, and contextualization of the truths-and the what if’s, too.
Let us begin to tell the truth-everyone’s truth based on their reality. Tell the truths, from the outside looking in, but from the inside as well. Either they align or are different realities shaped by perception, for it is between the two wherein lies the truth. It may, no, it will take more targeted google searches, but it is for the best, for a better future, free from divisiveness and -isms. Teach the truth about inventions, discoveries, culinary origins, traditions like music, art, and discuss the circumstances which has brought us places like the White House, the civil engineering of a city: Washington, D.C., the cotton gin, refrigeration, air conditioning, the hair comb, the traffic signal, the electric light bulb filament, etc………………
Teach and tell the real stories-the stories behind the stories and bring clarity to the propaganda. It is that propaganda, unquestioned by truths, which has brought discrimination, segregation where separate is not equal, mass incarceration, public lynchings, implicit bias, the ‘Alt-Right’ and the Klan. Shall this continue to divide us? The historical accountings, specifically in regards to both Native and the African-American experience, overlooking trials and tribulation,while negating many triumphs. The omissions differ from what we’ve been told. What is taught are either half-truths or total lies by omission. Yet still, we tell children not to lie? No more hypocrisy.
Highlight the incredible resilience, fueled by strong work ethics, honored family traditions, deep spiritualism, and give them all, every student the education they deserve. Help them belong and give them their history.–one certain way to encourage children of color to forge through onto success is by showing them that they can do it….others before them have endured personal, societal and familial challenges and obstacles to their motivated pursuits of excellence, realizing potential and rights of life and liberty. Show them that others have prevailed in spite of their circumstances.
How much do you know about slavery? The best way to honor Black History Month is to teach the difficult past, and uncover the everyday heroes who look like your students. Black History is not just a one-sided discovery, or a one month celebration. Make it year-round! That’s true respect for diversity and your students-our children!
Be courageous! Be bold! Be empathic!
Be the change! Teach for change! Teach for tomorrow!