According to Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” enews this morning (dated May 2, 2021):
On April 19, the Department of Education called for public comments on two priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs. Those programs work to improve the "quality of American history, civics, and government education by educating students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; and… the quality of the teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools, including the teaching of traditional American history." The department is proposing two priorities to reach low-income students and underserved populations. The Republicans object to the one that encourages "projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning."
I couldn't check out the public comments portal fast enough.
I am seventy years old. It was not until around twenty years ago when I found myself working for an organization that had indigenous rights projects that I realized millions of people all over the world had worldwide conferences and had been screaming (and ignored) for centuries about land theft, culture obliteration, and the destruction of their families. I met many of these people and felt as though I'd been living under a rock all my life. This led to a self-education project that escalated during the Trump era when racism became acceptable. I've read book after book (see end of this essay for references*) that horrified me at what my white school never taught. I felt embarrassed and also infuriated at the blatantly false history I'd been led to believe was true.
But after I got through this emotional phase, something wonderful happened. It was like being in one of those dreams where you suddenly discover new rooms in your house. I began to feel as if I'd been living on a second floor, completely unaware of the vast and beautiful first floor and basement. The more I learned, the more I realized I'd been living in a tiny room, living in black and white, unaware of all the color and space available to me, and with each new floor, room, and color, I began to get bigger and more alive.
I grew up in a white town with a white school that taught a curriculum that, knowing just the facts of what I know now, makes it impossible to not see that the educational system that I was born into and informed by was racist.
How was it that I didn't know that upon arriving in the New World and meeting the welcoming Arawak people, Columbus recorded in his ship's log:
"They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned ... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features ... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. ... They would make fine servants. ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." (See my review of A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn)
It is incomprehensible to me that I knew nothing of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre of Black Wall Street until October of 2019 when I read Jacqueline Woodson's wonderful novel Red at the Bone. This domestic terrorism event touched my own family and subsequent history, yet not only did I not know it happened, but it was left out of all American history texts.
I could go on and on about my ignorance and gaffs I've made and hurt I've caused because of my ignorance of true history and therefore the experience of millions of people with whom I share life in this wonderful flawed country.
So, yes, yes, yes, our school history texts should be revised with the truth. But not just for the people who have been left out of it. But for everybody. I am furious that it took until my seventh decade to understand how brainwashed I was and therefore how small and comparatively colorless my vision has been. All students, all people deserve to be taught the truth.
To read the proposed legislation and make a comment (deadline is May 19, 2021), go to: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2021/04/19/2021-08068/proposed-priorities-american-history-and-civics-education
*Just a few of the helpful books I've read in the last few years, in no particular order:
- Fire Shut Up My Bones, a memoir of growing up Black and gay by Charles Blow
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexi
- Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
- A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
- The Sellout by Paul Beatty
- I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett (and any book by Everett; there are so many, but try God's Country also)
- Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston
- There, There by Tommy Orange
- Homegoing by Ya Gyasi
- Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
- Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
- How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
- The Ties that Bind: A Memoir of Race, Memory & Redemption by Bertice Berry
- The Underground Railroad Records: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom by
- Tulsa 1921: Reporting a Massacre by Randy Krehbiel
- You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism by Amber Ruffin & Lacey Lamar