“We must tell the truth till we can no longer bear it.”

James Baldwin

Decades after James Baldwin spoke these words, we witness schools banning the evaluation of slavery’s lasting effects, as well as the history of racism and sexism in America. To date, close to 30 states have passed or submitted bills that reflect a reaction to the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory (without fully understanding either example).

Pending legislation from these states dictates how a teacher may approach race and gender. Most of the language is inclusive: no promoting one race over another, no segregation of students. Nestled in that language, however, hide some deeply concerning issues. Here is a small assortment:

Iowa‘s governor, Kim Richards, signed into law a bill that specifically states that it prohibits, “that any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex”. How would one teach Iowa’s history regarding Native Americans, specifically the Black Hawk War (and what happened to Black Hawk after the war? The treatment of Native Americans causes distress, period, and Iowa was an epicenter of mistreatment.

In West Virginia, a Senate bill seeks to ban “teaching of divisive acts”. It includes the same language as Iowa’s law, as do most of the other states’ pending legislation. One of the biggest issues of concern should come from its definition of meritocracy: Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race” are prohibited. While no one really created meritocracy (we find it as far back as our earliest civilizations), we cannot deny that the “hard work ethic” was used to exclude workers who took time away from work for religious observance, or for those who could not pass through the racist barriers imposed by the society. “Hard work ethic” affected women strongly, as they were excluded due to perceived marriage responsibilities, menstruation, and pregnancy. It affected West Virginian’s mine owners when it prohibited Black miners from being allowed to work, as they were “inherently lazy”. (see Ronald L. Lewis’ work on Black coal miners, specifically in West Virginia).

South Dakota‘s legislation includes the following: “All the public schools in the state shall provide instruction in substantial conformity to the accreditation standards adopted by the South Dakota Board of Education Standards. The instruction provided in the public schools may not include any materials or encourage any activities that:

  • (1) Promote the overthrow of the government of the United States;
  • (2) Promote division between, resentment of, or social justice for a race, gender, political affiliation, social class, or identifiable group of people;
  • (3) Are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group; or
  • (4) Advocate the solidarity of, or the isolation of, a group of students based on a characteristic such as ethnicity, race, religion, gender, or social class, instead of treating all students as individuals.

US history includes learning about groups who did want to overthrow the government, and did promote division. The wording of their legislation does not reflect a teacher’s call to revolution today, but any individual’s call to revolution in the past.

Texas proposed an act that is far different in parts: it incorporates specific writings, and includes George Washington AND Ona Judge, Frederick Douglas AND Cesar Chavez…but no LGBTQ, Asian, or Native American stories. While this seems promising for a fair assessment of history, it also prohibits discussions, “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, and betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States which include liberty and equality…”. Given our history of slavery, dependence upon slavery to keep Northern factories running, Jim Crow laws, widespread discrimination, police brutality, segregation, and continuing racist action, this would mean that the entire history of the United States did not live up to its values, and never did, from day one.

Montana‘s proposal, now a law, specifically excludes “Forcing an individual to admit privilege or punishing them for refusing to do so, forcing individuals to ‘reflect,’ ‘deconstruct,’ or ‘confront’ their racial identities – including instructing them to be ‘less white’”. While overly detailed in some parts, buried here is the reflection of racial identities: did people who look like me have more privilege than those who look like my daughter? What privileges do I have that differ from male and and/or gender non conforming friends? How do others see me? These questions are no longer allowed. I’m reminded of Facing History and Ourselves’ use of exploring identity through questioning, as I am reminded of Chimamanda Adiche’s “The Danger of a Single Story”.

While the 1619 Project helps to shift the perspective, it has its flaws, as many others have stated: no space for the Western history of the United States, which experienced slavery differently and outside the British system on which 1619 concentrates, no room for Hawaii and Alaska’s history as reflected from 1619, and no view of the African immigrants arriving in the later 20th and early 21st century, whose ancestors may have sold enslaved Africans to American human traffickers. In the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, 1619 is a “consideration,” not a mandate, to tell this story of American history. Banning it, rather than analyzing it, is not the way to go.

America possesses many success stories, which is why Frederick Douglas saw the Declaration as a ideal that inherently included Black Americans, and was a call to correct the United States’ situation for Black Americans. It set up the platform for all of the future success we find in Black communities, an eventual end of chattel slavery, a future of breaking down the sexist and homophobic barriers, for religious freedom, and the inclusion of immigrants from sections of our planet that Douglas could never imagine. To teach the success without the shame is not teaching: it is propaganda. To take out the personal part of how people like me (child of immigrants, white, woman) navigated this America, whose story is different from my neighbor (child of enslaved Africans, Black, Native American, gender non-conforming) is disingenuous.

Looking for more? Consider the Civil Rights course, taught on Mondays in the fall online! — illegal in 26 states and counting!

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