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.
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.
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.