I just spent an amazing day at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History. Just getting an admission ticket was a bit of a feat, but I worked through the tech maze eventually. The museum is a wonder- serious looking and very beautiful on the exterior, full to bursting every day since it has opened with people who actually have some interest in learning about the history of America.
Because Black history is the history of America.
We are witnessing a unique and horrible phenomenon: the total denial of the story of American colonialism and the importance and horrors of the slave trade. The Republican party has made a decision that white children and youth ( who seem to be the only children and youth they care at all about) are not to be exposed to any materials that might make them aware that our ancestors were not models of moral perfection- they might feel a twinge of discomfort, or maybe even question the racism that is the Republican daily diet. The books that these school boards are banning run the gamut from classics telling the unburnished history of the Jim Crow era to books like THE HATE U GIVE, which is an amazing young adult novel probing a police shooting from all angles. Any book that might try to normalize the Black family, to make Black history real for kids, is absolutely out- of the library and the classroom. They are also trying to censor teachers: there are demands- from the same corrupt lawmakers who take lots of money and advice from corporate lobbyists (can we watch them at work?) to have cameras in public school classes- to out any teacher who might have the audacity to express empathy with the little girl whose two moms are struggling economically or the boy who is being teased for being a sissy. This is the “don’t say gay” bills being passed in so many red states. These same cameras might pick you out and get you fired for being too honest with your description of the beatings of enslaved people, or of the truth of the cruelty to Native Americans forced to march on the Trail of Tears.
The issues that arise when I think about this censorship are many, but my first thought always is “what about the kids of color or kids who live in non-traditional homes?” Do they not deserve to be exposed to materials that reflect THEIR lives and realities?
When we arrive at the African American Museum, we were transported to the lowest floor where the graphic and terrible cruelty of the Middle Passage, the brutal kidnappings, and the huge death toll that was the definition of the slave trade. In very subtle lettering, the name of each slave ship is written, with the number who were kidnapped, and then the number who survived. The death toll is staggering: 540 human beings loaded onto the ship, 134 survived- and it goes like this for hundreds of ships. A regular genocide. As you walk up the ramp, you arrive at the slave era- there is a reconstructed slave cabin, details about the rebellions, the beatings, and the amazing escapes. The Civil War and the tens of thousands of Black soldiers fighting, once the Emancipation Proclamation was out, for an end to chattel slavery. Reconstruction, the rise of the Klan, Jim Crow, the heroes of the Civil Rights struggle, and so much more. Black Americans built the city of DC. Their labor provided a huge base of wealth for old white families in the US- and that wealth inequality persists today. There are stories of amazing courage- whether Harriet Tubman returning, again and again, to help others escape from slavery, or the Atlanta washer women’s rebellion.
It broke my heart to think that this rich and vital history will be missing from the education of millions of our youth. Will they grow up believing that slavery was just peachy for the ignorant Blacks who were unable to care for themselves? Will they really buy into the lie that all who were lynched were criminals? Teaching that Black folks face no obstacles, no barriers, and no hate in this country will only lead to a greater divide between those who believe hate radio and internet sites, and people whose ideas are reality-based.
What can we do? We all have an obligation as Americans to learn our history. And then it is time to act upon this understanding: to support those Black folks who are brutalized by the police and the criminal justice system, to speak up every time a racial slur or comment is made, to help educate ALL our children about our real history.
Those of us living in “blue” states need to support our teachers when a small minority of parents or agitators try to accuse them of teaching “critical race theory,” something never actually taught in public schools, or damaging their ultra-sensitive white child’s sensitive feelings by teaching honest history. It is vital that the United States government and the conservative states not rewrite the events that created the best and the worst of this complex nation.
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