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.

 

Confederate statues and the day of reckoning … from symbolism to substance

Earlier this month, in Richmond, cce3a16c-4ae1-46ae-b447-003f2caaa949Virginia, the statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was toppled. It had stood on Monument Avenue since 1907. Virginia’s governor had already announced he would remove the 60-foot tall statue of Robert E. Lee, the figurative centerpiece of this avenue dedicated to Confederate leaders. But as evidenced by the messages written on that statue over the last few weeks, the Governor’s announcement was too little, too late for those protesting the brutal murder of George Floyd and championing what is beginning to be fully understood: Black Lives Matter.

Any child of the South, as I am, knows the statues weren’t only to celebrate the leadership of the Confederacy. The statues were to celebrate white supremacy. Most of these icons were erected between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. They were intended to underscore that the South may have lost the war, but in other ways, they had won. The sentiments of the South—the true belief of most white leaders across America at the time — was that white supremacy/leadership would not be threatened by the mere act of ending slavery. That message was delivered powerfully through legislation and actions — Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the prominence of the Ku Klux Klan — along with the construction of these massive statues.

Now, roughly a century after that period in history, citizens are calling for a reckoning. The Jim Crow laws, lynchings and prominence of white supremacy have been largely camouflaged in modern times, as Michelle Alexander revealed in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Policies and practices to maintain the predominance of white rule, white privilege, white supremacy have been prettied up, as my Dad used to say. Look carefully though, and you can see where and how institutions and systems routinely give white people advantages over black people.

Map of the Confederate Statues in America. Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019
Map of Confederate statues in US, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019

But you don’t have to delve deeply for symbols of the Confederacy. Confederate statues are abundant. Confederate flags are flown proudly across the country, even included in the Mississippi state flag. The image is displayed on bumper stickers and incorporated into clothing.  The statues and Confederate memorabilia were/are intended as a reminder of the underpinnings of the Old South and that the South — at least its philosophy on race — could rise again.  But, today, in many quarters, even that iconography is beginning to be relegated to the past.

In 1945, after World War II, the Allies banned all symbols of the Nazi regime. Flags were destroyed. Statues were taken down. Displaying the swastika was declared a crime. Nazis deemed criminals were sought, arrested and tried at Nuremberg. Everything that celebrated Hitler and his thinking disappeared from Germany. There was clarity. The philosophy of white Aryan superiority might continue to live in the psyches of some Germans. But, there would be no public venues created to celebrate what the government saw as the most shameful time in its nation’s history.

When an end to apartheid came to South Africa, there were trials—truth and reconciliation. The oppressed and the oppressor were brought together to acknowledge the pain and try to move the country to heal.

In the (re)United States, not only were there no real punishments* for the South after the war, the sentiments of the South seemed to shape the post-war values of the entire country. The government of America has never addressed the racial core of the Civil War. That’s the crux of the issue:  America has never come to terms with slavery as this country’s original sin nor has it recognized the ongoing subjugation of black people.

Maybe until now.

Today, we, the people, are proclaiming it is time for that day of reckoning. The tearing down of these statues is a beginning, moving the country from the symbolic dismantling of the Confederacy to substance: an examination and re-calibration of all the elements of America: health care, education, housing laws and practices, banking and business, the judicial system, and so much more. All that underpins how America operates and ensures the advantaging of one race over another must change.

The dictionary says that the day of reckoning is “the time when one is called on to account for one’s actions, to pay one’s debts, or to fulfill one’s promises or obligations.” That sounds right to me.

 

*Note: The forty acres promised to formerly enslaved people to start their new lives was to come from 400,000 acres confiscated from Southern landowners by the federal government. That would have constituted a punishment, maybe even the beginning of reparations, but that land was ultimately returned to the original owners.

 

 

When the subconscious is in control

Q: Who was the president of the Confederacy? A: Jefferson Davis.

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. I’ve known the answer to that question all of my life; so, on page 131 of my book, Daughters of the Dream, why did I reference Robert E. Lee as the president of the Confederacy and why wasn’t this error caught by the multiple readers who reviewed the book before publishing?

I think there is only one answer: Robert E. Lee looms larger than life in most conversations about the Confederacy. It wasn’t until writing Daughters of the Dream that I knew there was a statue to Jefferson Davis on the venerable boulevard in my hometown that features effigies of Confederate notables (along with one statue to Richmond native son, tennis champion Arthur Ashe). I did, however, know about the 60-foot equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. For whatever reason, Jefferson Davis seems to have taken a back seat, at least in Richmond, to Robert E. Lee. Even one of the local high schools is named Lee-Davis High, not Davis-Lee.

conscious.subconsciousWhy am I bringing this up? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to erase/correct the negative images about black people that have proliferated in our country for so long. I incorrectly wrote that Robert E. Lee was the president of the Confederacy because that false reality rang truer in my subconscious than the truth. And his role—Lee’s—as the dominant figure in the Confederacy mythos and pantheon, seems to have also permeated the psyche of many readers who did not catch the mistake.

I think the same thing has happened to many white people in America. The traits they associate the most with black people are negative. This rings in their subconscious. They hear about the number of black people committing crimes and who are incarcerated. They hear about the inability of black children to learn or for black boys to attend to their school work. They hear about, or see, the distressed nature of some black neighborhoods. They hear about the high black unemployment rate. The list goes on and on. Criminal, ignorant, unstable families are the media messages, the tropes that populate minds—often crowding out reason—with words and images. They give people the shorthand ability to make quick decisions. As Malcolm Gladwell reminded us in his book Blink, quick decisions are not uninformed decisions. They may occur in the blink of an eye, but information is being processed and acted upon that has been accumulated over a lifetime and fed by the experiences and perceptions of parents and grandparents, neighbors and teachers.

Against the negative imagery defining black people, there is often little real-life experience to provide balance and truth. In predominantly white communities, there may be few black teachers, lawyers, doctors, store managers to offer a counterweight against the negative images, no interaction in the homes and communities of the ‘other.’ And when you are the majority population, there is little reason to question your reality. It just is. There is little delving into the structural racism and implicit bias that shape reality. No one is being prompted to read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law to learn of the federal government’s overt role in ensuring residential segregation and then questioning how residential segregation has led to differential policing in certain neighborhoods, differential public services like street cleaning, differential educational opportunities. No one is reviewing studies, like the one that shows when teachers are asked to watch a group of children in a classroom and then note which children are acting out, the answer is the black boy even when an impartial observer notes no distinction in the behaviors of the gender and racially diverse group.

Robert E. Lee rose higher in my consciousness when I thought about the Confederacy than did Jefferson Davis because images and messages had accumulated in my mind over a lifetime that positioned Lee in closer proximity to my sense of the Confederacy than Davis. I think many people experience this same effect. And perception, not facts, rule. I had been taught that Davis was president, not Lee. In the recesses of my mind, I knew this, and the error has been corrected in Daughters of the Dream, but what happens when there is no one teaching about black people as contributors to society on all levels and no one is pushing you to think a lot of what you ‘know’ about black people may be stereotypes. How do we address these culpabilities and overcome the ‘blink’ syndrome of implicit biases? We have to bombard the media with cell phone videos that show common prejudicial behaviors. We have to elevate the stories of the black doctors, scientists and those of ordinary people doing the right thing. Just as a reader told me of the mistake in Daughters of the Dream, we must all point out the faults in people’s thinking and work toward that dream of a racially just America.