Anti-racism Curriculum is Essential for Every K-16 Program
It’s time to go back to basics; truth telling, high expectations, close reading of original texts and learning to read with complexity. In the newest round of culture wars, schools are being assailed by an outcry against anti-racist teaching that is based on lies, misinformation, an unscrupulous drive to lower expectations for students and an infantilizing of teacher expertise. Already buffeted by the demands of pandemic teaching, teachers are struggling to apply their skills to reach all their charges. It is a dangerous trend that raises teachers’ trepidation as they test the waters of anti-racist instruction and has created a potentially poisonous atmosphere where school boards are being assailed by disruptive zealots demanding they scrap “critical race theory” (whatever that is) and stop teaching “revisionist” history (whatever that is). In Wayne County, Wayne Action for Racial Equality(WARE) supports teachers and administrators as they promote school cultures that proactively embrace every child within environments that honor diversity, build equity and facilitate inclusion.
One of many methods to establish such atmospheres is with WARE’s anti-racism instruction professional development for teachers. The professional development workshops are entering their fourth summer of existence and barely into infancy in most schools and non-existent in most. Wayne County schools share this position with schools around the nation. Anti-racism teaching is new in its present form since it relies on an ever growing body of scholarship wrought by new technological research tools that allow the uncovering of primary source documents and make them available to educators at every level. At the same time, as the newly revealed information reaches the general public, it is being attacked by its critics as if it is a three headed beast (or as my six-year-old grandson would prefer, a three-headed dragon) that mauls the souls of white children while destroying academic expectations for all BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) children leaving our classrooms littered with ashamed, embarrassed and academically struggling victims of misguided teaching practices.
Nothing could be further from the truth. So let’s get back to basics. Better yet, let’s move forward to truth telling, high expectations, close reading of original texts and learning about the complex nature of the human condition. To move forward to reach these goals, teachers must go back to the fundamental principles of academic research that require that we:
1.) Define the words and concepts that we teach using well established sources.
2.) Use primary and verifiable sources to generate instructional materials and resources.
3.) Teach students how to define the terms they use with common accepted tools.
4.) Teach students how to verify the reliability of sources they use by basing research on primary sources and well established materials and resources.
Anti-racism instruction is based on the idea that we humans share a history that is multi-dimensional and multicultural. Learning about that history and our shared human experience generates feelings and thoughts across the full spectrum of emotion and reason. Learning in hybrid classes with advanced tablets using multiple virtual modalities increases the challenges of anti-racism teaching but doesn’t change the basic fundamental principles listed above. The principles are critically essential skills for students to acquire in creating learning cultures where cultural identity is honored and embraced and where each student’s capacity to handle complexity is a goal to teach.
As one of the instructors of WARE’s Anti-racism Professional Development Workshop, I have come to understand that history is complex and contested as an academic discipline and that creates a high standard for teachers’ instructional practice. In preparing for and teaching this workshop for the last four years, I have researched my own personal and family history. I have learned that my forebears have been perpetrators of racial and social injustice as well victims of that same injustice. I have learned that some of my forbears have been champions and warriors for justice while others have been participants in genocidal attempts to obliterate the indigenous people and cultures of New England. I invite participants in this workshop to explore their complex family roots in their political, social and cultural context as I have begun to do. Toward that end, I share the following as one example from my reflections on my family history.
I am filled with pride and gratitude when I think of my paternal great-great grandfather, Edwin Wood, who spent almost his whole adult life running his farm in Putnam, Connecticut with only one leg. Edwin was captured twice by the Confederacy. The second time was during the Battle of Lynchburg which resulted in the loss of his leg to amputation after capture in that battle. It was a sacrifice to end slavery in America that he shared with hundreds of thousands of his fellow Americans including my maternal great-grandfather, Phillip Alonzo Barringer, who was also wounded.
However, their sacrifices do not give me license to pretend that the material advantages their European white background have brought me don’t exist. Edwin was returned to his farm in Putnam, Connecticut after his leg was amputated. He received a veteran’s pension. Freed slaves had no such material goods to draw upon after the war. The promise of land reparations never materialized. They got none. In fact, there was only one case where such a transfer took place, General Sherman ‘s Field Order 15 (January, 1865). That official act gave 400,000 acres of coastal land stretching from South Carolina to Florida to freed slaves. Unfortunately, the order lasted only until the fall of 1865 before it was rescinded by President Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination.
On the other hand, at the same time, my great-grandfather was able to provide material well-being to his son, Joseph (my great-grandfather). He grew up on the family farm, was educated at seminary, became a minister and married Francis Cook. That marriage aligned me to an ancestral branch that included Colonel Delano West. Colonel West led white soldiers as they nearly annihilated the Wampanoag, Pequot and other indigenous nations while protecting English settlements. We call that military campaign King Phillip’s (Metacomet’s) War. It took place just fifty years after the English invasion of what my ancestors named New England. In that war of the 1670s, Metacomet (Massasoit’s son), attempted to lead an indigenous coalition to prevent the English from forcibly removing them from their land.
The result of the Metacomet’s War? The native people who had lived in the New England area for a 1000 years were defeated and left virtually landless. Upon learning of Colonel West’s role in this devastation, I was left ashamed of my ancestral wealth base that was acquired by this violent invasion of what we now call New England.
I have come to experience the full complexity of my history, both the pride and the shame. These feelings and my reflections upon them motivate my drive to be an ally for social justice, a fighter to honor the legacies of Edwin and Philip Alonzo. At the same time, my shame drives me to overcome the travesties of Colonel Delano West. Anti-racism’s critics say to let the past be the past. Don’t teach students with such complexity and don’t uncover any history that might cause shame, but to do that would base my teaching on omissions, erasures and misinformation which are the building blocks of a lie that results in ignorance, denial and poor scholarship. I owe myself and my students an instructional program that is built on a verifiable history, on truth and on the rigors of complex thinking.