As a student at Burke High School, I was glad my history teacher, T. P. Willams, did not solely use the mandated history textbook as a primary source of teaching. For standardized test purposes, he covered what we needed, but the education was in the books, pictures, videos and scholarly articles that awakened us. This sparked critical thinking, lively debates and often left me and others questioning what is traditionally taught.
Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America, black history didn’t start with slavery and Thanksgiving didn’t originate under favorable conditions. The founding fathers and the American institutions that have been created were designed to start traditions for the purpose, to establish and maintain the power of white men and their legacy. This is the meaning of “Heritage Not Hate”. You can’t truly teach American history without acknowledging that Black history shaped it.
Since Mr. Williams exposed his students to what was not in the textbook, I became conscious of systematic racism, the prevalence of discrimination and prejudices. We were better informed of my ancestors’ struggles, strength and courage and that of Native Americans, women and other groups that did not fit the pure, innocent narrative. I learned early what I wasn’t supposed to, and I continue to see things through my third eye. Not settling for any answer, seeking the full story, and not forgetting what I am because enslaved people survived the Middle Passage.
If students learn the full experience of others, outside of commemorative months and beyond the watered-down version taught, I believe they would appreciate, respect, understand and learn all of American history and such lessons would stay with them into adulthood. What is being discovered in diversity and inclusion training, racial equity classes and current self reflections are the experiences and perspectives absent from current curriculum in our schools. Mr. Williams used the textbook as a reference to show what was missing. That was illuminating and more educational than what I was taught in previous history classes.
I’m all for people seeing the error of their ways, acknowledging their privileges, discovering what already existed, and sincerely trying to be better. However, if we want to prevent a generation of ignorance from breeding a generation of shallow minds, we should look at making American history textbooks more reflective of the full American story — the carnage caused, the battles won and the pursuit of happiness, liberty and justice for all that remains out of reach for too many.
If we as a society want to do better, why not teach our kids and each other better now? If we can enrich the mind with a fuller picture of people, events and cultures, is it not possible for more understanding to take place and less discrimination and hate to be taught from one generation to another?
I applaud the group of African-American students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver, Colo. These students at the joint middle and high school were able to get a more inclusive and diverse history curriculum into their school. The transformation that has taken place will continue to strengthen the bond between teachers, students, parents and their community. This will improve the trajectory of their tomorrow.
I’m under no illusion that a more accurate history curriculum will prevent future social unrest, stop police brutality, end the oppression and injustices that minorities live with daily, or automatically create equitable solutions for marginalized people. However, putting things in context, providing the rest of the story, revealing the harsh and complex truth of our history may very well prevent hate from manifesting itself and lower our tolerance for accepting it.
I know this would be a challenge, but that doesn’t make it impossible.
Clay Middleton, of Charleston, has held various senior-level positions in government and politics.