Why Textbooks Are Fables for Conquerers

Robert E. Lee Statue, Charlottesville, VA (image c/o)

Recently, I ran into an old friend who I attended Syracuse University with. We had a short but lively conversation on “culture vultures,” our generation’s phrase for [typically white] people who appropriate and dilute a culture for the explicit purpose of profiting off of it. This phenomenon usually goes hand-in-hand with the swift displacement of people of color who were the original forebears of the stripped culture.

Then she blurted out: “Yo! This is exactly what Professor [Winston] Grady-Willis was talking about in [African-American Studies] 101!” Because, for those of us who didn’t get this history at home, that was the first official class where this “alternate” history was handed to us.

Can you imagine having 14 years of education and rarely seeing your own history reaffirmed in the social studies curriculum? Before the Internet, we relied too heavily on outdated textbooks, but that was no excuse for the genteel (and misleading) ways the authors rewrote our countries’ history. During my college courses, I was happy for my classmates who got a crash course on oppression and resistance from their parents and subversive teachers. I found myself playing catch-up, filling in all the gaps in the social studies books I relied on for more than a decade to give me the “truth.”

In science, we’re prompted to trust what’s observable. In African-American studies classes, though, those who attended lived by one motto: what we didn’t observe could kill us. The “truth” needs deeper interrogation lest the stories benefit the winners.

We were taught “if you didn’t learn history, you were doomed to repeat it.” We weren’t taught the direct lineage of Hitler’s reign of terror to the United States’ treatment of Native American / indigenous peoples. We were taught that education is a right, but weren’t taught how much founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson justified slavery by calling us sub-human undeserving of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We were given books by James Baldwin and Mildred Taylor, but we were never told that our country made their artistic expression illegal for their ascendants. We were shown Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks as passive resistors, and Malcolm X as a complicated rabble rouser. We weren’t told that our government had a hand in undermining their efforts for justice and equity.

In fact, the history of resistance, if ever mentioned, was made to feel like ancient history. According to Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, our country had become so prosperous since MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech, we no longer needed to protest for human rights within our borders. Fairytales.

Without teaching history as a critical narrative worth examining and including stories from our most marginalized folks, it’s easy to pretend that the recent Charlottesville white supremacy marches are “not us.” That “us” is a tricky word, too. Without the right pedagogy, we don’t get to examine who the “us” is, who believes in the American dream / nightmare, or who actually died to keep the facade rolling. Even as we got computers, CD-ROMs, and eventually the Internet, it’s easy to sway students into narrowing the visions for what students can and should learn about their country. For example, if we predetermine that our current borders are natural to our Earth, and not extensions of political and economic desires, then we don’t get to question President Trump’s desire for a wall.

Xenophobia is a construct that teaches us to see more narrowly.

Of course, there’s a ton of other factors that go into teaching history in K-12. While I’ve appreciated the effort to collect resources (see #CharlottesvilleSyllabus from graduate students at the university), I’ve become wary of collecting resources for the sake of collection. Without a pedagogy that centers critical thinking, examination, inclusivity, and agency, history will repeat itself. (Xian Barrett does a great job laying out some of the tenets for good teaching here.) It’s not enough to just put a list and ask folks to just deliver in the era of Common Core State Standards and scripted lessons. It’s even more critical to insist on pedagogy, environment, and all of their manifestations. A curriculum is only as good as the accompanying approaches and the conscientiousness of the adults in charge of its intent.

Plus, some of the resources floating around were similar resources what was developed after the events of Sanford, Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Chicago, Baton Rouge, Waller County, St. Anthony … except that now we’re focusing on deconstructing whiteness instead of affirming black people’s humanity.

Which is fine.

Except here we are again, the protestors on the streets and the scholars on the tweets, trying to correct an American history that the conquerers refuse to make amends with. And here we are, dependent on our fellow educators with different levels of consciousness and affinity, hoping they can teach our students that they are active agents of history, wherever it goes.