All I know about race and racism, I learned in ______________. Hmmm… I never learned this.

An article, “Happy Slaves? The peculiar story of three Virginia school textbooks”  by Rex Springston came out about two years ago. I just read it on the heels of an email from a college friend. She reminded me of what we learned in the 4th and 7th grades and then in high school about Virginia’s history and about enslaved people.

Page from 7th grade textbook, Virginia: History, Government, Geography
Pure fantasy. It presented enslaved people as well-treated servants, and the Confederacy was glorious with “handsome” (the language used in the fourth-grade textbook) General Robert E. Lee fighting for a noble cause. It was a fairy tale bound within the hard frame of actual history textbooks. Fake history.

As Confederate statues have come down, there have been many cries that history is being destroyed. The current U.S. president said: “We have a heritage. We have a history, and we should learn from the history.”

Well, that’s the problem. The history of America, particularly its racial history, never has been taught fully and comprehensively. Many have learned a version of history through the lens of white leaders with a specific, racialized agenda, but typically not from unbiased historians committed to the truth.

When I first entered an integrated school in the 6th grade, my mother told me: “White people don’t always tell the truth.” I knew she was talking about adults. Her message surprised me. I had been taught to always respect adults, and thought that included expecting their truthfulness. This was the first clue my educational experience was changing.

Every day, when I left school, I came home to a community that challenged and corrected what I had been taught in history. They shared a different story of slavery, one that revealed the atrocities of subjugation, and a different story of the Civil War. Not about the battles per se, but about what was at its core. My education was augmented by information about slave uprisings and about black people fighting for their humanity, not docile and lazy, but hard-working, freedom fighters. And the history I learned from my family and neighbors was the truth.

For my white classmates, also learning from those textbooks, was the content ever questioned? I suspect there were few white households in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, in which the story of slavery was even discussed back then, much less refuted. It—the stated and printed history—just was. In the 1950s, when these textbooks were developed, Virginia was leading the fight against integration. The notion of black people being happy with their current condition was mythology in 1850 and remained so in 1950. A distortion of history was taught in public schools, with textbooks developed and approved by the government-established Virginia History and Government Textbook Commission. Why would the content be questioned? It wasn’t until the late ‘60s that just a small reference to Harriet Tubman was added to appease vocal outrage from civil rights advocates. And it wasn’t until 1972 that the Virginia Department of Education announced that the three textbooks that had then shaped thousands of students’ knowledge of Virginia’s history for over two decades would be “decommissioned”… not denounced as they should have been.

So, what’s the big deal now? The new history textbooks are correct, right? Maybe, but what about those who learned from the old texts? Just consider this. If you were in the 7th grade in 1972, today, you are 60 years old, perhaps still in a leadership position, probably a senior leadership position … a judge, state legislator, college professor maybe. Think about how many people these folks have mentored over their careers. What policies have they shaped or influenced? Are these some of the folks calling for Confederate statues to remain because history is being erased? Having those books as their texts, living in racially homogeneous communities, never learning about black people, this is a part of what shaped them. Philosophically, who are they? What are their values and beliefs?

And this isn’t just a Virginia story.

“I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”  — James Baldwin

In America, we place enormous trust in our education system to prepare our children to succeed. Can you successfully negotiate America—a country developed in large part by black labor—without understanding black history and culture and the fundamentals of a racial hierarchy that goes back 400 years? Until now, the answer has been yes.

jeopardy image
2014 episode of TV show Jeopardy; college contestants make African American History the last category
As an increasing number of Americans are calling for racial justice, there must be education. To right a wrong, you must first understand it. Today, there are courses and degrees in Black Studies in many colleges across the country, and some schools focus on black history in February. However, the history of black people and of race and racism is rarely taught as a required course at any stage in a person’s education, K-12, college, professional degree program, or post-graduate. It is episodic. Until this is taught as a required course or a series of classes, many white people will continue to get their history of race and racism and of black people from the news or from off-hand remarks made by their peers.

We must do better. Learning about black history and culture, along with race and racism, cannot be ad hoc or haphazard. It must be structured, intentional, and incorporated throughout the educational experience. Moving America to racial equity will require the inclusion of an examination of racialized America in mainstream American education. Reveal, reflect, recalibrate. It can be done, and we should do it. Now.


18 Replies to “All I know about race and racism, I learned in ______________. Hmmm… I never learned this.”

  1. My wife and I watch Jeopardy almost every evening, and I remember the episode depicted in the photo. I suggest revising the caption to read “college students avoid tackling African American history until they have no other choice.”

    1. Billbestpitch, I saw that episode of Jeopardy too, and I was struck by the fact that the students avoided the category like the plague. I was especially surprised, because they are young people. I thought that today’s college students had learned some Black History. As a teacher of over 40 years, I know that I taught many lessons on Black History, although the lessons mostly centered on individuals rather than on events.

      As a white student in segregated elementary schools in Mississippi in the early 1960s, I was taught that main reason for the Civil War was a battle over states rights. The issue of slavery was not highlighted, but it was one reason that the South seceded. Then I moved back to Illinois, where I spent my first 7 years of life, and the history was different. Also, I went to integrated schools, albeit I lived in areas with few African Americans. The thing that really struck me, was that there were no segregated water fountains, schools, movie theaters, swimming pools, restaurants, or public restrooms. I was more like, “Oh, okay.” Not exactly an “aha” moment, but something that I will always remember.

  2. Joanie, you were the inspiration for this piece. I have thought about the importance of having racially expansive and accurate history taught in schools for some time, but you offered the needed “hook” for the story when you shared that article by Rex Springston. So much to learn and to unlearn.

  3. Caste by Isabelle Wilkerson should be required reading for all highschool students. It is painful, shocking, chilling and yet perhaps the best book I ever read.

    1. Caste is an upcoming book for our men’s book club. We read Warmth of Other Suns a couple of years ago, and it rates as one of my favorite books. She is an excellent writer whose works are having an impact on how we think about our country’s narrative.

  4. This is a powerful blog and reveals the version of history that I learned in the 60s in Virginia. I have my fourth grade Virginia history book, and reading it today and comparing it to what I now know nearly 60 years later is eye opening, actually, mind boggling. Many of us have to “unlearn” this airbrushed history before we can truly understand its impacts. Thank you for your research, your blog, and for showing us what we need to relearn in order to move forward. To recalibrate…..

  5. I remember vividly my fourth grade history book with a picture of slave life, characterized as a having a secure home, medical care, food, etc with kindly owners.
    I recall looking at the picture closely because the term, “ slave” didn’t did well with me and I actually distrusted the representation. But I was a kid and didn’t question it out loud.

      1. I’m a Museum Museum Educator/Living Historian
        My specialty for the past 26 years has been 18th and 19th Century slavery history in the South Carolina Lowcountry. I’ve noticed that school groups are better prepared now for museum visits than they were when my husband and I first started working here in Charleston in 1995. Back then, most of the Black kids were surprised to learn that enslaved Africans had skills and that it was they who brought their knowledge of rice and how to grow it here to the Lowcountry.

      2. Thanks for your comment. So good to hear that young visitors are coming to your museum with an enhanced understanding of history and the contributions of the enslaved to America. We all have so much to learn and to unlearn.

  6. I remember the specific image from our textbook you used to illustrate this post. It didn’t ring completely true to me as a young child, but definitely shaped how I thought or, more accurately, didn’t think about the past. It was reading The Confessions of Nat Turner in high school that may have been the trigger to begin thinking more critically about the white revisionism of our country’s history. Despite all the problems with The depictions of characters inConfessions, it did begin a process of un-learning the propaganda we were taught way back when.

    1. There is so much that goes into shaping how we see ourselves and our worlds. The K-12 education is the foundation. The Virginia Commission on African American History Education just released a report. The recommendations for a more inclusive representation of history are the core of the recommendations.

  7. Thank you for another important post, Tamara. From today’s vantage point, I look back on my education as having been woefully and willfully inadequate regarding slavery / racism / Black history. I’m grateful for the sources and teachers to which many white people like me now have access so that we might have an ‘honest assessment of a horrible past’ as Baldwin says.

    1. Schroeder, I am so happy to be on this learning journey with you and so many others. I hope you’ll share this post — or any other — with whomever you feel it might prompt or reinforce new thinking.

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