I read about it every day, the news media covers it incessantly. The war waged on critical race theory. The sanitization of history to spare white feelings. As a Black woman passionate about history and Black liberation, the demand among some parents and politicians for an education that understates the enormity of enslavement baffles me. Many conservatives tout the history of America as a tale of triumph, a point of patriotic pride. But, what about the terror? What about the treachery? Failing to examine the less centered and celebrated aspects of the national narrative debilitates critical thinking. It also erases the experiences of those who have been marginalized. It is imperative, then, that history is taught fully and inclusively — regardless of the discomfort it may provoke. With an equitable and honest telling of history, students will cultivate knowledge that will encourage them to advocate for and achieve a stronger multiracial democracy — an ideal aspired to in the nation’s founding documents.
When I was a fourth-grader, music accompanied my learning of history. I once recited an original rap about Rosa Parks after my social studies teacher introduced an activity on the activist. The lyrics brimmed with childish insistence: “Her name was Rosa Parks / She changed history / She didn’t get up out her seat / It was a mystery / She went to jail / But she didn’t care / ‘Cause she can sit on the bus and sit anywhere.” Though an oversimplification, the rhyme still won the approval of my teacher and assigned group. It also reinforced to me the centrality of women to a Black freedom struggle that suffered from misogynoir and helped me, unconsciously, identify the lineage of Black protest culture — from civil rights activism to hip hop music. But not all of my musical interactions with history permitted me a glimpse into the breadth of the American experience. Some of them buried the truth in gilded harmonies. In one of my music courses, my classmates and I performed a song commemorating July 4, 1776. As the song neared its crescendo, our teacher raised her arms to imitate the furious motion of a conductor’s baton. The flailing of her pink flabs meant that we had to lift our voices to their highest heights. So, we soared. We soared on the lines “Free and independent! / What a glorious sound! / Free and independent, we are now!” We even soared past the fire of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech. The same speech in which he asked: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”
I proceeded to the fifth grade and learned a more horrific history. I suspect the textbooks themselves only dedicated a few lines to this history because my new, fiery-haired social studies teacher mentioned it outside of her usual lesson. One afternoon, in between a presentation on the mid-twentieth century, she commented on Emmett Till. Without detailing the gruesome crime, my teacher said that two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant had murdered Till, a 14-year-old Black boy. She condemned the men and described how, in 1955, they laughed away their acquittal by an all-white jury. She never showed pictures of Milam or Bryant, but I always remembered their smiles. I remembered them, still, after school when I researched Till and contrasted those white grins with his battered remains. I remembered them several years later when I passed Till’s original casket at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The tragedy of American history lies in the erasure of Till’s smile and the memorialization of the smiles of his murderers.
Many people, including me, liked my eighth-grade South Carolina history teacher because he laughed with students and coached the football team. But, in many ways, he furthered my miseducation. I remember one incident vividly. Before beginning a lesson on enslavement, my teacher distributed notes from his presentation. The blank spaces on the papers meant that students should fill in the spaces to match what he said throughout his lecture. Soon, my teacher addressed the conditions of enslavement. He said that South Carolina plantation owners treated enslaved Africans “relatively well.” I pondered this statement. Searched for its meaning, handled it, fumbled it. Then, I wrote it in my notes. I wonder now: was I rewriting history? Writing it with “lightning,” like what President Woodrow Wilson reportedly remarked after viewing The Birth of a Nation? Not long after that lesson, my teacher proposed an activity that ultimately garnered approval from the principal. Students would act as enslaved Africans, our school would serve as the Underground Railroad, teachers would pretend to be either friends or foes of our freedom. After solving a riddle and encountering three “friends,” I made it to the “freedom” of a short break spent outdoors. Ignorantly, I stood in the southern dirt that once held the tears and toil of Black people. Ignorantly, I sat in the shade of trees that once held Black bodies. Had I rewritten history, written it without the blood?
I hope students across the country receive a richer, more nuanced educational experience. One that does not cloak the truth in heroic language. One that does not erase the oppression nor the jubilation of communities of color. A full and inclusive history equips students with the information to analyze the world. It galvanizes them to identify flaws and enact change. A full and inclusive history allows students to understand the role of themselves and their communities in the construction of a better democracy. We must learn to interpret visions of freedom from the past. And we must weave new visions of freedom for our future.
Zeniya Cooley, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer.