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In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, a historian and the co-founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, proposed that the second week of February be Negro History Week.
“If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” wrote Woodson, considered the “Father of Black History.”
Textbooks at the time largely ignored the US’s Black population, so Woodson took on the task of writing Black Americans into the country’s culture and history.
Today, as the US observes Black History Month, which grew out of Negro History Week, Woodson’s provocation has taken on new urgency. Many conservative parents and lawmakers are challenging books and instruction about the history of race and racism – and in consequence are not only muzzling educators but also obstructing students’ understanding of the persistence of a harmful racial order.
For instance, one Tennessee group, empowered by a new state law, is griping about “Ruby Bridges Goes To School,” a children’s book by Bridges about her experience desegregating a Louisiana elementary school as a 6-year-old in 1960.
“This is about the silencing of evidence-based historical content, and that should concern everyone who claims they love this country,” Michael Butler, a history professor at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, told CNN.
Last month, a district canceled Butler’s civil rights history seminar for middle school educators over absurd concerns about supposed “critical race theory.” He explained that part of the point of knowledge is to help students become rigorous thinkers so that they can grapple with the complexity of the world around them.
“This history is difficult. It’s not comfortable. It’s not meant to make people feel comfortable. It’s meant to make people understand how the past informs the present,” Butler said.
What follows is a closer look at the movement to banish from classrooms any serious discussion of the history of racial oppression – and the impact of such censorship on both educators and students.
Tennessee and Florida aren’t the only states where history is under siege.
In Alabama, some parents are making the spurious claim to education officials that Black History Month is “critical race theory.” Eric Mackey, the state superintendent, said earlier this month that he’d recently received at least two calls from parents alleging that the celebration and study of Black history is a way of practicing the analytical framework.
Between January and September of 2021, state legislatures across the US introduced 54 separate bills “intended to restrict teaching and training in K-12 schools, higher education and state agencies and institutions” and that “target discussions of race, racism, gender and American history,” according to PEN America. Appropriately, the nonprofit organization refers to these restrictions as educational gag orders.
It’s also worth mentioning the campaign against Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of The 1619 Project, which parses how slavery shaped US institutions. Last year, in a brazen effort to stymie interrogation of the country’s founding mythologies, Republican lawmakers in Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri and South Dakota introduced bills that would prohibit educators from using the project or cut funding to those schools where the project appears to inform their curricula.
Crucially, this assault on history has, well, a history – one that stretches back to at least the end of the 19th century.
“What we’re witnessing now in terms of legislative restrictions following on the heels of racial progress is not new. Our country has experienced these kinds of legislative restrictions before – including after Reconstruction with the imposition of Jim Crow laws designed to maintain the racial subordination of emancipated Black people,” explained Janel George, an associate professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center.
She also noted that in the aftermath of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, states throughout the South ushered in an era of “massive resistance,” which saw legislatures in the region pass laws to oppose school integration. Rather than comply with desegregation orders, Prince Edward County, in Virginia, shuttered its public schools for five years.
In other words, “recent legislative attempts to restrict the teaching of the history of racism are merely the latest iteration of a tradition of exploiting legislative power to maintain racial inequality in public education,” George said.
One outcome of this legislative blitz is a chilling effect on educators, as they endure scrutiny for any attempt to convey an honest account of race and racism in the US.
Already, educators have said that they’ve faced fines, threats of physical harassment and interrogation because of their curricula. And of Mississippi’s HB 437, which would among other things forbid professors from using materials that wrestle with the idea that the Magnolia State is “fundamentally, institutionally or systemically racist,” according to the bill’s text, the writer Adam Serwer said on Twitter that “Mississippi’s speech ban would outlaw historically black colleges and universities explaining why they exist in the first place.”
Adam Sanchez, a social studies teacher at Central High School in Philadelphia where part of his instruction focuses on Reconstruction, echoed some of the aforementioned concerns.
“I’m not sure how anyone can accurately teach a course on African American history if this bill is passed,” Sanchez told CNN, referring to Pennsylvania’s HB 1532, which would impose restrictions on allegedly “racist and sexist concepts.” “It’s written with such overbroad language that it would essentially punish educators who teach basic truths about African American history and US history in general.”
He continued, “To give one clear example: How do I teach about the US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which basically said that Black people are inferior and have no rights that a White man is bound to respect, without students coming to the conclusion that the country is fundamentally racist? Not me telling them that, but students might conclude that.”
Last year, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, vowed to defend teachers against any backlash.
“Mark my words: Our union will defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history,” she said during a virtual address at the union’s TEACH conference. “Teaching the truth is not radical or wrong.”
Weingarten reiterated some of Sanchez’s sentiments last week, saying that educators “don’t tell students what to think – we teach them how to think.”
“Putting politicians in control of classrooms and lecture halls is a slap in the face to all Americans who value freedom and local control, and we will fight this blatant censorship with every fiber of our being,” she told CNN.
Last month, researchers at UCLA and UC San Diego published a study called “The Conflict Campaign.” In it, they chart how almost 900 schools, enrolling some 17.7 million public school students, have been affected by local anti-“CRT” efforts.
Chipping away at history instruction comes with consequences.
“Our children are not having the education around race and history that they should, and it’s to our detriment, and it’s a disservice to our children,” Danielle Atkinson, a mother of six, told CNN in December.
In 2016, Atkinson joined with other Black and brown parents to form the Royal Oak Multicultural Parents Association, a group that advocates for more expansive and culturally diverse curricula in the Royal Oak Public Schools system in Michigan.
More recently, Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri articulated on the House floor that when students don’t learn about US history in its entirety, Black Americans are denied justice, among other things.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Education and a former language arts teacher, spoke broadly about the necessity of giving students access to accurate history instruction.
“If we teach a generation of young people that, after the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and all of the events of the 1860s, attempts to integrate free people failed and there were repressive laws enacted that weren’t repealed for almost a century, then we’re going to have different conversations,” she said. “We’re going to have historical context for why the country is the way it is, instead of thinking that the fact that Black people are at the bottom of every metric is indicative of our deficit or our inferiority.”
Thomas submitted that the best way to view the current legislative assault is as a matter of control – of the narrative, of the future.
“All of the effort to suppress the teaching of US history is a matter of control,” she said. “Whoever controls the narrative controls society, and whoever controls the narrative will control the future.”