The Tragedy of Native American Boarding Schools

This evening I listened in on a webinar with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), The Conversation Ignored for Too Long: Race and Racism in Education and Society with a remarkable panel including José Vilson, Liza Talusan, Cinnamon Kills First, and Tia Brown McNair.  I joined late and my internet cut out partway into the webinar, so I missed a fair amount, but the webinar ended with a Lakota blessing sung by Cinnamon Kills First (who is Northern Cheyenne).

I decided to watch the embedded documentary called In the White Man’s Image about the Native American boarding schools. It pains me as an educator how often education is used as a colonizing weapon. When I think of all we have lost as a country to our individualistic culture, it makes me so frustrated and sad. At one moment in the documentary, Sid Byrd tells the story of returning home from his boarding school and finding he has lost his language and cannot communicate with the people he loves. He also explains that

In the Lakota way, you are responsible not to yourself but to the Oyate, to the group. Whereas in the school, you say you have to be your own person, you have to acquire an education, and you had to do that by yourself. You could not be responsible to the group. You are responsible, so you take care of number one, and you get to the top at the expense of others.

This statement struck me. If I could pinpoint one thing that gets in our way the most in this society, it’s that we take care of number one at the expense of others. We feel no responsibility to the group. Everything from climate change to not wearing masks during a pandemic (and mocking those who do as “sheep”) to racism to misogyny to school shootings stems from the fact that White American culture celebrates, maybe even worships individualism. It is one reason why we dehumanize certain groups of people. It is one reason why we scapegoat people. It is also at the heart of assimilationism. When we ask people to assimilate, we’re saying that their culture and background are unworthy and they should adopt a colonizing culture.

My students in Social Justice watched a documentary from PBS that was part of the series The American Experience. It’s a 3-DVD set called We Shall Remain. We watched the episode titled “Wounded Knee” about the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the occupation of Wounded Knee in the 1970s. My students found it all very interesting, and many of them were particularly struck by the stories of Native people made to attend boarding schools. This is a clip from that episode (PBS doesn’t offer embed code).  Please click over and watch it. The whole series is well worth the investment to watch, and I highly recommend it.

Contemplate what we have all lost at the altar of individualism.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

Diagramming White Supremacy

In this excellent TED Talk, Baratunde Thurston masterfully uses sentence structure to discuss racism using headlines many of us are familiar with. I am definitely planning to use it in my English classes. Thurston strikes a balance between humor and seriousness. He masterfully draws the line between lynching to calling the police on Black people simply trying to live their lives.

I have a friend who is a police officer. She is Worcester Police Department’s LGBTQ Liaison Officer. Her story is not mine to tell (though it’s pretty amazing),  but as this article indicates, she is involved in the LGBTQ community.  She visited my Social Justice class in January to talk about her experiences. My students loved her and later said her visit was one of their favorite lessons of the year. One of my students asked her a great question. He asked her what she did if she had to enforce laws she didn’t agree with. Sharon talked about discretion. As a police officer, if she is doing traffic detail, she has discretion over whether or not to issue a ticket or a warning. If she stops someone for speeding, for example, she takes into account the situation, the relative danger of the person’s speed, the location (school zone or not), and many other factors. And she also has the discretion not to pull someone over at all for something trivial. So she doesn’t.

My big takeaway from both Thurston’s TED Talk and from my friend Sharon is discretion. Thurston says we have the choice of “minding [our] own damn business.” We can use our discretion for good or for ill, but the actions we choose have consequences, and those consequences are not the same for all people. This is because of structural, system inequities due to deep-seated racism.

I love how Thurston asks us to flip the script near the end. What if we changed the action from “calling the police” to something that makes more sense in the circumstances? I connect this idea to listening to someone’s story. Each of the headlines Thurston shares tells someone’s story. I know some people might think it’s a cliché, but I think it’s hard to hate someone once you know their story.  In fact, learning someone’s story might change your entire understanding, maybe even your entire life.

If we saw each other simply as fellow human beings just trying to live our lives, what could change? When we dehumanize others, it’s easier to discard their lives. We do it a lot in this country. It needs to stop. We can contribute if we use our discretion and maybe listen to each other’s stories. I’m grateful to Baratunde Thurston for sharing his in this TED Talk.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

Anti-Bias Toolkit for K-1st

Last quarter I took a wonderful Early Childhood Education course with Dr. Wendy Crocker as part of my graduate school program at Northeastern. My favorite assignment was creating an anti-bias toolkit for educators working with young children. I selected a target age of kindergarten through first grade for mine, but I think these tools could be used with younger or older children.

I am making it freely available here to you. I was inspired after going to Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s webinar with NCTE today. I’d definitely add Antiracist Baby to the kit! It’s a PDF, so you should be able to download and view the file on any device. Just click the link below.

Anti-Bias Toolkit, K-1

A Long-Running Scam

Some of my family stories are sad. My grandfather was given up for adoption by his mother after his father committed suicide. The story has become muddled over time. I actually only know my great-grandfather committed suicide because I ordered a copy of his death certificate. The story his children were told is that he was murdered but no one ever did anything about it. I’m not sure why my great-grandmother told that story. There are rumors of my great-grandfather’s violence. I have reason to believe he was a boxer and that he also abused his children physically.

My grandmother’s mother gave birth to her out of wedlock in 1929. They lived in a tiny town called Quicksand in Breathitt County, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. My great-grandfather was in prison when my grandmother was born. As far as I know, she never knew him. Again, I only know this because I ordered my grandmother’s birth certificate. Her baby brother, born after her mother married her stepfather in the midst of the Great Depression, died of dysentery and malnutrition as an infant. Again, I have seen his death certificate, which is how I know.

As far as I can tell, access to money and education was somewhat scarce in my family. In “How White People Got Made,” Quinn Norton wrote, “To this day poor whites are the most intransigent racists—left by an exploitative and violent system without education, access to food and medical care, or even the basic necessities of life in the developed world.”

I can’t help but see some of my family in this description.

The concept of Whiteness, Norton explains, is an invention. Biology tells us that race is a social construct, and my DNA may be more similar to someone considered to be of a different race than it may be to that of other White people. In the top highlight from the article, Norton writes

The Virginians legislated a new class of people into existence: the whites. They gave the whites certain rights, and took other rights from blacks. White, as a language of race, appears in Virginia around the 1680s, and seems to first appear in Virginia law in 1691. And thus whiteness, and to a degree as well blackness, was born in the mind of America.

I had read some of the background covered in this article elsewhere, but I’m not sure where. It was in this prior reading that I learned about the story of John Punch, who ran away from his indentured servitude in Virginia along with two other indentured servants, both of whom were what we would call White. The two White men were given more time in their indenture as a punishment, but Punch was sentenced to slavery.

if you think about Norton’s argument, it should make you angry. A little bit of power is an awful narcotic. It has numbed generations of people into accepting racism so that they can perceive themselves as better than others rather than directing their anger at the rich and powerful who don’t care about them.

I am, perhaps not terribly coincidentally, reading a YA novel set partly during the French Revolution right now. One of the novel’s messages is the way that history works on people, the way it repeats, the way it is never resolved.

I was really struck by this 1899 cartoon from Harper’s Weekly that is included in the article.

You might have guessed without my saying that I have Irish ancestry. My first honest reaction to the picture is that Irish people don’t look like that! Only second did I think that no one looks like these stereotypes, which is because of racism. I recognize I have work to do on my own racism.

Then, I started digging around and found things like this.

If you see the caption, it reads “The King of A-Shantee.” This is clearly supposed to sound like “Ashanti,” and is therefore meant to denigrate the poor Irish, also known as the “Shanty Irish.” I had never heard this term until today, probably because the Irish eventually became White, so it’s not something I have heard directed at me or my family. However, it’s hard not to read the description of “Shanty Irish” without recognizing it’s describing my family.

I’m not here trying to make some argument about my ancestors being treated poorly therefore White privilege isn’t a thing. I believe quite the opposite. In fact, I’ve been a beneficiary. But I know also that my ancestors probably suffered a great deal from the harm that their racism did to them.

Norton says in her article

White exceptionalism runs to both negatives and positives. Whether whites are seen as intellectually and spiritually superior or morally abhorrent, the argument that whites are intrinsically different from the rest of humanity has all the same flaws as any such argument. There are no intrinsically innocent and wise peoples of the earth, we are all the same wonderful and terrible creatures. Every community produces gentle geniuses and violent monsters. If we accept the normality of white people—and this proposition has in its favor overwhelming evidence: circumstance, (the arbitrariness of whiteness) history, (the universality of both human crimes and genius) and physiology (the genetic difference among “white” is pretty much the same as any group of white and non-whites)—this leaves us looking to social systems and systems of power for the sources of our social problems, which seems pretty sensible, when you think about it.

Just as American exceptionalism has been used to prevent sensible change—“Americans have the best healthcare in the world! We must retain the present system to keep that!” (Hint: America does not, in fact, have the best healthcare in the world)—white exceptionalism has been used to keep whites and non-whites from asking why society doesn’t work in obviously more sensible ways.

It’s hard to see the message recycled yet again. And to see it work yet again. This long-running scam has us all getting in our own way when we could be making some positive changes for the good of all of us. But as long as we are distracted into scapegoating people and buying into the notion that they are inferior, we are going to remain victims of this scam.

This post feels rambly, and I don’t think I’ve really got much coherence to offer other than it did help me figure out why racism is so entrenched in families like mine. It’s hard to resist the allure of feeling superior to someone when you are in the lowest of circumstances. This is no excuse. Just an insight.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Me

I am reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In the book, Dr. Kendi mentions To Kill a Mockingbird. I captured the screen from my Kindle book and sent the following tweet:

I didn’t start my day thinking I was going to get involved in a massive Twitter discussion about TKAM. I have mostly been silent about the debate I’ve seen online as I thought about my own experience with the novel. Reading Dr. Kendi’s words, however, helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the book.

In the accompanying Twitter thread, I talked about how I devoured this book when I read it in high school. I actually read ahead of the required reading homework, which I really never did. I was a huge reader, but I didn’t like much of anything my teachers asked me to read in school. Sometimes I didn’t read and faked my way through. But that was not true of To Kill a Mockingbird.

When I had my own classroom, my first year as a teacher, I asked for a class set of TKAM. My students were predominantly Black, and I could tell they didn’t love the book. I taught the book for several years, however. I thought it was antiracist. It is not.

I cringe so often thinking of my early years as a teacher. I want to apologize to those students every day. Not that I’m finished growing, but when I think of all I didn’t know and the harm I did in ignorance, I have so many regrets. However, I need to be honest and say that my teacher preparation program, while it was amazing in many ways, was seriously lacking in teaching social justice. Lisa Delpit and Beverly Daniel Tatum were writing when I was in undergrad. So were bell hooks and Geneva Gay. We were not exposed to any of their writing. I went into a classroom with no idea what I was doing in terms of culturally responsive teaching, and yes, I blame my English education program for that. They must have known we needed this background. It should have been woven through our entire curriculum.

In the Twitter thread, I explained that I would not teach the book again.

Electing not to teach a book is not the same thing as banning it.

I have been thinking about this book for a little while. I haven’t read it in years, but it kept cropping up in discussions online. This seems to be the book that teachers, especially White teachers, really get upset about when someone suggests maybe we move on and teach something else.

If you have to teach it, you really need to interrogate it. The Black characters in the book are props for White children to learn about racism. They are not centered. They are silenced. We can do better. If someone is making you teach it, share your concerns. Open a conversation. And definitely disrupt it (thanks #DisruptTexts!)

Think about your purpose. If you are teaching TKAM in order to teach about racism, this book is not helping you reach that goal. In fact, it’s getting in your way.

I have been recommending Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy instead. Bryan Stevenson is actually a real lawyer doing some amazing work. If you’re teaching TKAM to middle schoolers, then you might see if the version for young people suits your student population better.

There are so many options before you! What about Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give? Samira Ahmed’s Internment? Jason Reynolds’s books? Ibi Zoboi’s books? We have so many options, and if our goal in teaching a book is to discuss a text about racism, we need to center the voices of people who actually have experienced it.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

Boston Globe Hosts Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on Juneteenth

I am not sure if the Boston Globe will publish this video elsewhere, but if you missed their discussion with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, they have posted it on Facebook. I tweeted observations as I watched, so I will embed those tweets below rather than attempt a recap.

As a follow-up to my post yesterday, as of right now, no family members, aside from my husband, have reacted to my invitation to join the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.  Ten people have liked or loved the post (my husband “loved” it). My brother-in-law is on Facebook but left a kind comment on LinkedIn. I left a comment, especially given the large number of people who reacted to my other post about being close to finishing my coursework in my doctoral program. The silence on the post inviting friends and family to join me in the challenge was pretty loud in comparison to the reactions to my other post. As Dr. Ibram suggests, I’m calling you in out of love.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

Allyship and Me: A Tale of Two Social Media Accounts

I tend to be two different people depending on whether I’m on Twitter or Facebook. On Twitter, I am more myself. While I maintain professionalism, as I first established my Twitter account for professional reasons, I am much more open about my personal political beliefs there than I am on Facebook.

My family is a big reason why.

I suspect the same may be true for many White people, no matter where their families are from. I regret not speaking my mind when hearing racist remarks from family members. It was a big deal for me to share the post in the screenshot above on Facebook, just as it was a big deal when, a few years ago, I “came out” on Facebook as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

It was interesting and informative to see who “liked” and responded to that post. It will be interesting to see who “likes” and responds to this post.

The invitation is there.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

The Haudenosaunee Influence on the U. S. Constitution

Something I never really learned in school whenever I studied the United States government was the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) influence on the U. S. Constitution. In fact, I don’t think I learned about this until I was a high school English teacher, teaching American literature. I am fairly certain the Prentice-Hall textbook I was using had excerpts from the Iroquois Constitution in it. And that was my first exposure to the notion that the U. S. Constitution wasn’t born fully formed from the heads of our Founding Fathers, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

The [Haudenosaunee] constitution, also commemorated on Wampum (beads fashioned from the shells of whelks and quahog clams), included more than a few familiar concepts: a restriction on holding dual offices, processes to remove leaders within the confederacy, a bicameral legislature with procedures in place for passing laws, a delineation of power to declare war, and a creation of a balance of power between the Iroquois Confederacy and individual tribes, according to later transcriptions. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin were in regular contact with the Iroquois Confederacy, and Great Council leaders were invited to address the Continental Congress in 1776. (Wali)

You can read the Constitution here, along with commentary by Gerald Murphy, who remarks, “You will find it very difficult to keep in mind that it survives after some 500 or 600 years, and was originated by people that our ancestors mistakenly considered as ‘savages.'” PBS also has an article about how the Haudenosaunee Constitution influenced the U. S. Constitution.

We have even used the ideas of Native people against them. We really don’t learn enough about what our country’s founders thought about Native people or what their dealings with Native people were like.  Take, for example, the myth of the first Thanksgiving, which has become enshrined in our curricula for elementary school. I asked my students this year how many of them played the parts of Pilgrims and Indians in a school play. Most of them did. Most of them had learned the story that Native people helped the Pilgrims, and everyone was so friendly that they sat down for a meal together in commemoration of their gratitude.

I dressed up like an Indian for a play in fourth grade called How the West was Really Won. My grandmother made my costume, and I remember going barefoot because of my lack of education about Native people. The costume was made out some kind of felt, but it was meant to look like animal hide and had fringe meant to mimic Native dress (read: a White person’s notion of Native dress). In fact, it didn’t look too different from this outfit, which you can purchase for $19.99 from Party City.

Can someone please explain to me why it’s okay to dress up like this in 2020? This is so racist.

In the play, I had a solo in a song called “The Iron Horse,” and the lyrics were essentially about how the White man was coming to destroy the Native way of life. None of this was seen as problematic.

The United States has perpetrated a genocide against Native people. The erasure is compounded by the fact that we do not bother to teach the truth about Native people and Native history in our schools. I highly recommend Rebecca Nagle’s podcast This Land, which is available in a variety of formats linked on their website. Also, David Treuer’s book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (reviewed on my other blog) and Tommy Orange’s There ThereThere are so many amazing passages, but this metaphor for systemic racism stands out in light of the subject of this post.

This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed overboard by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agitator gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

I do not think the fact that people are toppling statues of Columbus at the same time as Confederate Monuments are coming down is happenstance or coincidence. Both are symbols of White supremacy and the erasure of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). It is our responsibility to uncover whose voices we are missing in our education and listen to those voices.

In one of the most stunning passages of Yaa Gyasi’s phenomenal novel Homegoing, her character Yaw, a teacher, says the following to his class:

So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©

How Does Racism Affect Your Health?

Some of my fellow Worcester Academy teachers are engaging in Dr. Eddie Moore’s 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©. Each day, you learn a little bit in a variety of modes and track what you do and reflect on what you learn. For example, one day you might read an article. The next you might listen to a podcast. Then you might watch a video. To hold myself accountable for my learning both to my colleagues and to myself, I decided to blog my reflections in the open. I am learning, so I’m bound to make mistakes and display my ignorance. My revelations will likely not be any such thing to some readers.

I elected to listen to a podcast featuring Mary Bassett for my first day.: How does Racism Affect Your Health? In spite of the fact that we live in a country that has good medical care, access to that medical care is a persistent problem because we don’t see it as a human right. After I listened to the podcast, I sought out Dr. Bassett’s TED Talk, mentioned in the podcast. You can find the TED Talk embedded above.

I was really drawn to Dr. Bassett’s conclusion in her TED Talk: “We don’t have to have all the answers to call for change. We just need courage.” Not only can this advice be applied to education but also to all facets of our society. I think what stops me, and perhaps others, from using my voice more is precisely that I can’t fix it. Racism is systematic and structural, and it cannot simply be fixed. I was really interested to hear Dr. Bassett’s comment about how “epidemics emerge along the fissures of our society,” given that we are currently in the midst of a global pandemic that is hitting our country very hard, and just as we have done with racism, many people are pretending it is not happening. A distant cousin of mine posted an item on Facebook contending the pandemic was some sort of liberal conspiracy—that it simply wasn’t happening. I did not confront her. I didn’t even report her post because my experience with Facebook is that they do not care much what is posted on their site (as evidenced by Zuckerberg’s cravenness and Facebook employees’ recent walkout). No, I unfriended her. So I didn’t have to see that nonsense. That was silence on my part, and I assume she is still spreading misinformation. I don’t know any longer. There is a balance between taking care of yourself by removing toxic individuals from your life and speaking out when people spread lies. I am still trying to figure out what it is. I know I didn’t use my voice in that instance because I believed I wouldn’t be able to change my cousin’s mind. So I didn’t try.

I wonder: did we decide as a country not to have some form of Medicare for all, some form of socialized medicine or at least more equitable access to medicine because we actually want to see certain groups suffer, because we want them to die? I don’t know how we can resolve issues of access to medical care. Lack of access to medicine is compounded by systemic racism. I, too, have experienced problems accessing medical care. But I have never lived in a food desert, and I have always had access to food, even during his pandemic. I have access to clean water (unlike the residents of Flint, MI). If a hurricane hit my community, I could be assured people would care and try to help (unlike Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico). The fact that I am White and live in a predominantly White neighborhood is a factor in all three.

Here We Are

After the election of the current occupant of the White House, I wrote a post in which I discussed my feelings about it. In the comments on that post, you’ll see a commenter chastise me for bringing my politics into my own blog. Well, the fact is that teaching is political. We all have a positionality and a bias. We have lived our experiences and interpreted them subjectively through the lens of our positionality and bias. Other people do not share those same experiences. However, when people’s lives are at stake, it’s wrong to be silent. It’s just flat wrong.

I was actually raised (or I should say my mother attempted to raise me) to believe that discussing politics was tacky or crass. No joke. Obviously, the teachings did not stick. Nor did the casual racist attitudes of my family. And fighting the racism in which I was brought up takes daily work. I still make mistakes all the time. Racism is so deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. The biggest mistake I think I make on a regular basis is not speaking up to my family or old friends when they say racist things. It’s something I am working on trying to change, but being a bystander in these moments comes from a place of fear, and several years of therapy are helping me grapple with this fear, but it is embedded very deeply in my psyche. Freezing or fleeing are responses to trauma that I have relied on as a coping mechanism. I do it because when I was small, I could not fight.

Fighting does not come naturally to me. I really have to push myself to do it. Even challenging people is very hard for me to do. I struggle with how to do it and have had to learn all kinds of techniques for approaching it. I absolutely fear confrontation. However, I have also realized as I have become older that confrontation and facing these fears are necessary sometimes. Now is one of those times.

I am struggling with how to say what I want to say, so bear with me. This post will likely not be polished. This post will likely ramble.

Racism is wrong. It is just wrong. There is no place for it in our world. It is holding us back as a species. When I think of all we could accomplish in this world if we didn’t spend so much time fighting each other over things that don’t matter, I feel so angry.

Racism is also the lived experience of people of color. And believe it or not, it hurts the people who are racist as well. It twists them and makes them go against concepts they would otherwise believe it—Christian charity, kindness, and love, for example. When you can dehumanize a group of people, when you can see them as the other or as less than human, it is so much easier to devalue their lives. That is what we have done for centuries in this country. We have said over and over that Black lives do not matter. Black lives DO matter. Of course all lives matter, but it is Black lives that are in peril because of systemic, structural racism that our country was founded on. If you don’t believe me, go beyond Jefferson’s writings in the Declaration of Independence (did you realize a passage about Great Britain inciting slaves against the Colonists was struck?) and read his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he says,

Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarfskin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious* experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it.

Or how about this?

Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar œstrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [Phillis Wheatley]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.

This man enslaved his own children.

My perspective is that people struggle with absolutes. Either the founders of this country were brilliant men who conceived of a radical idea about a new government, or they were horrible White supremacists who wanted to preserve their way of life. Actually, yes, they were both. Being able to hold these contradictions in your head at the same time is the essence of critical thinking, and it is sorely lacking in this country right now. There is no reason why we shouldn’t have learned about Jefferson the man with all his contradictions and problematic aspects in addition to Jefferson the statesman.

Let me be absolutely clear. When I teach my students, I teach this full picture. This includes the inclusion of a variety of voices that our curriculum has traditionally excluded. I am not going to apologize for doing that. I think it’s a moral imperative. I think teachers who DO not do that need to do some hard thinking about why they are silencing certain perspectives. Take a look at Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again.” This poem is not new.

There is actually a logical fallacy called “appeal to tradition” or argumentum ad antiquitatem. The crux of this appeal is that we should not change things because we have always done it that way, so therefore, it’s the best way. While there is nothing wrong with tradition, there is something wrong with clinging to practices and beliefs because they have been held a long time. One of the worst accusations I have heard politicians level at one another is “waffling.” You used to believe something else, and now you don’t anymore, so that must mean that you don’t stand for anything. No, it means that you changed your mind. Or to quote Taylor Mali, “That changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

I have changed my mind many times as a result of new learning, and changing our minds is something we need to do to save ourselves from the sicknesses in this country. Educating ourselves is critical. We live in a country in which a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Three other officers stood by and did nothing. Police officers murdered Tamir Rice in the park for playing cops and robbers with a toy gun, an activity many White children engage in without being in danger of their lives. Trayvon Martin was walking home to his father’s house from a store with a package of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea, and because a racist man didn’t recognize him and saw only his hoodie and skin, he felt like it was okay to kill him. And he escaped penalty. How many more? I could offer a list.

Ahmaud Arbery

Tony McDade

Breonna Taylor

Freddie Gray

Amadou Diallo

Botham Jean

Dreasjon “Sean” Reed

Philando Castile

Jamar Clark

Michael Brown

Ezell Ford

Eric Garner

Sandra Bland

The sad fact is that I could go on an on and on with that list. I don’t have to worry if my son leaves the house that he won’t come back. I don’t have to talk to him about how to comport himself with police officers so he can avoid being killed. That’s it. Bottom line. Meanwhile, my friends send their beautiful Black sons into the world knowing the world fears and despises them.

Look at your own child, if you have one. Can you fathom being able to do that? For God’s sake, put yourself in someone else’s shoes and learn some empathy. You can’t sympathize with the feeling because it is not your experience, but unless you can try to picture what that experience must be like, we are lost.

And the leadership we have in this country right now demonstrates a frightening lack of empathy. I do not think the current resident of the White House is capable of empathy. That means he doesn’t care about you, either. He is completely morally bankrupt and incapable of any feelings that are not rooted in self-interest.

Make no mistake about where I stand. Black Lives Matter. We are a sick country, and we have always been sick. We are also a country with some pretty wonderful ideals, if we could ever manage to live up to them. As James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” America can be both great and terrible. But it cannot become better unless we have an honest reckoning with systemic racism. As Baldwin also said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

This is a wholly inadequate response to what is happening in our country, but it’s only the start. I’m going to work on doing better. Racism is a cancer. We don’t eradicate cancer by pretending it doesn’t exist. Eradicating cancer takes extreme measures. I’m going to work on learning more. I am going to try to be braver and confront racism and injustice.

Are you?

Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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