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.

 

A picture is worth a thousand words

Many people characterize Washingtonians as living in a bubble. Maybe. But if we do, there is diversity in that bubble. I live in a section of Washington, DC —Capitol Hill, Ward 6— that is 45% African American, 42% white. When I walk through my neighborhood, I see people who look like me. Older African American women are among the early morning walkers, exercising around the park near my home. Some people appear to be Asian American or Latinx. There are people speaking languages I recognize, and many I don’t. There are young people pushing baby strollers and folks, young and old, on scooters and bikes and dining in outdoor restaurants. The diversity of my neighborhood is one of the many things I like about it.

Eastern Market
Capitol Hill neighbors at the Eastern Market flea market

It is true, Capitol Hill has become whiter over the years that I’ve lived here. Gentrification is a term used regularly when discussing my part of DC. Still, lately, I’ve noticed black and brown young couples also choosing to move into this community, not just white families. And while the economics of living in DC don’t make my neighborhood, or any other in DC, an ideal retirement community, about 34% of my neighbors are over age 45.

Regularly in the Capitol Hill Corner, an online neighborhood newsletter, you learn of new shops, restaurants, condo buildings, and grocery stores coming to the Hill. And this week, I learned of a new women’s clothing store moving into my neighborhood. That’s great, I thought and was excited until I clicked on the link to their website.

So glaringly unexpected, it took my breath away.  I had to look twice. There were 22 images on the opening page (yes, I went back and counted). Shocking in its whiteness, there was not one black or brown model. The models all presented as young, slim, and white. Judging by this store’s marketing message—conveyed by their images—I was definitely not their desired customer. Wow. I felt excluded. I was excluded.

I get it. This store is marketing to young women. As I reflected on it, I realized it wasn’t the lack of age range in the models or even the lack of varied body types I found so disturbing. It was the lack of Consumer-Response-Lack-Diversity-in-Ads-Sept2019racial diversity. When clothing stores and advertisers across the country are recognizing diversity in size, shape, age, and, of course, race, this store has stepped back in time. It seems entirely out of step with what I hope to see in my neighborhood.

So, I contacted the store with my concern. The owner responded in less than 24 hours. She noted that she was an immigrant and wrote: “I deeply value inclusivity and take pride in our mission and commitment to diversity — it’s the heart and core of our company.” She then referred me to the company’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. Both sites had more diversity — nominally. But I stand by my initial reaction. What the owner says she values is not reflected in the primary image projected by the company, the home page of its website.

No, this store’s marketing is not a big deal in the fight for racial equity, but the look and feel of your neighborhood grows one business, one school, one grocery store, one family at a time. We are all responsible for taking steps, large and small, for building the racially just and welcoming community in which we want to live. Just a reminder: when you see something, say something.

P.S. — I don’t believe that public shaming is the most effective first strategy to affect change. For that reason, I chose not to mention the store’s name in this post. I hope that my note will open the eyes of the boutique owner, leading to new thinking and actions. I’ll let you know.

Maybe the Robert E. Lee statue should remain … Just a thought

I live in Washington, DC, but Richmond is my home. I don’t get there often, but I was there a week or so ago and drove down Monument Avenue for the first time since the removal of the statues of Confederate icons and soldiers. It was a sultry Sunday afternoon in July. Summertime in Richmond. Few cars. Few people.

IJefferson Davis. pedestal stopped at the pedestal that once held the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. It surprised me. I felt nothing. When a Richmond friend texted me early in July that the Stonewall Jackson statue was coming down—now, right then—I immediately started surfing the channels. For hours, I streamed reports from a Richmond TV station, watching transfixed as something I couldn’t imagine ever happening, happened. So, when I stopped at that pedestal, I expected to feel some emotion—joy, relief, happiness — something. But I stood in front of it and felt nothing.

I drove on to the statue of Robert E. Lee. It was always the centerpiece that loomed over Monument Avenue. And there it was. Still standing, but oh so different. Instead of the cold solemnity and haughty arrogance I remembered, there was a vibrancy, an energy I could feel even before I got out of my car. There were a few vendors at a respectful distance, and some people walked around the monument, with reverence, for what had become a memorial for lives lost to police brutality. I felt the power of the entire tableau.

The Robert E. Lee statue was still there, but no longer proud and majestic. The dignity of that plaza now rested solely in the messages written vibrantly and boldly across the pedestal—a rainbow of reds, blues, yellows, greens. Before my eyes could read any words, my spirit took in the colors, so alive, blending from one into another. Then, as I focused, the first word that registered was “TAMIR” in huge block letters, honoring 12-Robert E lee statue. TAMIRyear-old Tamir Rice. Slowly, I circled the statue. Some messages were profane—F_ _ _ the police—but most were profound, with BLM or Black Lives Matter appearing multiple times as I rounded the pedestal.

History is written upon that statue now—a far more complete history than it ever offered before. Huey Newton’s name is there. Marcus David Peters is memorialized there along with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, and so many more. The words “2nd place” appear several times, possibly noting that this general was not the winner of that war. There’s also: “No justice, no peace.” When I look back on pictures of this statue from just a few weeks ago, I see the messages have multiplied. The anger—bottled up for decades, centuries—has spilled out in many of the words and phrases and organic thoughts reflecting what the community feels must be said: “Black Transwomen,” and “Whose schools?” and “Whose streets?” Statements, more than questions.

Yes, Robert E. Lee is still there, but what made his society then and what makes ours today is now clear. Written in the bursts of words and names and painted with the stark explosion of colors.

Lee doesn’t only represent the Confederacy. He represents white supremacy, not just a hundred and fifty years ago but in the predominance of white leaders in statehouses, in media, in businesses today. He represents a narrative that was seeded, nurtured, and has blossomed in America for 400 years. And this is not just about individuals who shout hateful words and wave the flag of those defeated in a long-ago war. It is about a culture and a way of life that has only recently started to become acknowledged: a way of life that advantages white people and disadvantages Black people and other people of color.

I am glad that the effigies to the Confederacy on Monument Avenue are being removed. Maybe that is why I was surprised by the unexpected profundity of seeing Lee at Marcus David Peters/BLM plaza. Raw and confrontational. Keeping the statue there—with its modern-day messages—provokes different thinking. It juxtaposes a white historical marker against today’s racial reality. Maybe we learn more by seeing what’s been changed but is still there—that collocation of past and present—than simply the vacancy of something that had been.

Context is important. Just a thought.

 

 

 

I am my brother’s keeper. Part 3. Black and Native.

Note: Part 1 was published on May 18, 2020. Then the story was interrupted by the tragic killing of George Floyd (Part 2 posted on 5/27). Now, back to the original story noting the involvement of the Indigenous community, and many others, in the Black Lives Matter movement.

In all my Daughters of the Dream posts, I comment through my African American lens. That is who I am. That is how I identify. In truth, however, my maternal side of the family is primarily Native; members of the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia. I have known this all my life, but it mostly went unacknowledged. The federal government did not recognize the tribe until 2018. But more importantly, in many ways, it was also unrecognized by my family.

Big Mama and Papa Joe. separate pics side by side
The author’s maternal grandparents, Dora Adkins Charity and Joseph P. Charity.

Using Ancestry.com, I watched the evolution of the racial identity of my maternal grandparents. On early census documents, my grandmother was noted as Indian, full-blooded as the saying goes. My maternal grandfather was noted as Mulatto, which he was by the definition of that term, mixed Indian and white. Then they both become Mulatto, along with their children, of course. Subsequent census documents list them as colored, then Negro, then black.

My mother and her siblings were raised as African American. Perhaps my grandparents had internalized the negativity the white, dominant population associated with being Native. The only time I can remember my mother celebrating her Native heritage was when she casually commented one Thanksgiving that there was no need to observe this holiday (even though she did). “It was just the beginning of white people taking Indians’ land,” she said.

Now, I have started the journey of celebrating all of me.

Chief Stephen Adkins
The author with Stephen Adkins, Chief of the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia

Just as I would not overlook a racist image of an African American or a racist comment about one, I am becoming more attuned to my Native roots and culture.  For years, I have recognized the racism in the names of some sports teams. But when conversations turned to looting following the murder of George Floyd, how many of us thought about the original looters — those who took the land of the Native peoples in this country?

Native and black, they are both a part of who I am.

But what about those identities that are not a part of you or me? Just because it is not our identity, racism cannot be ignored. Racism hurts all of us. As Martin Luther King said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” The racial mosaic of those who continue to march and speak out against police brutality and racism, six weeks after the murder of George Floyd, gives me hope. An increasing number of Americans seem to believe — truly believe — we are our brother’s keeper.