“It is not who you attend school with, but who controls the school you attend.” Nikki Giovanni
There is a historic battle underway. Literally, a massive battle over history: whose voices should be included, who gets to decide, and what it all means.
And what’s at stake is equally massive. As it has always been, whoever controls the narrative of our past has a vast, almost insurmountable, sway over the shape of our future. As Dr. Leonard Jeffries described, Whoever controls the images controls your self esteem, self respect, and self development. Whoever controls the history controls the vision.
And the battle lines have been drawn.
On the one side are uninformed and confused people, outright racists, white supremacists and Black sympathizers among them.
Prominent in their ranks are legislators in the Republican-controlled states of Oklahoma, Idaho, Tennessee, and now at least 13 other states – including in my home state of Pennsylvania, strong-arming laws to restrict educators from teaching their students about our nation’s history of structural and institutional racism. They are using McCarthysim-like tactics and Red Scares of yesteryear to convince both unsuspecting and gleeful and giddy participants that teaching children the truth about racial injustices in America is akin to a Communist under every child’s bed and in every closet.
Their suppressive machinations are, at times, abetted by select Black scholars, and other elitists who help whitewash history by romanticizing Black resilience at the cost of the whole truth.
On the other side are actual educators and liberators: Black educator-activists, and accomplices, spearheading the call for history lessons in our schools that place the story of America in its fullest context, not flinching from the underlying racism and race-conscious policies that have driven and twisted the path of our history.
Those of us fighting for this more complete, more truthful, view of American history do it for one reason: to build better futures, not just for marginalized communities, but for all communities.
As someone raised and taught by a family and school of activists and freedom fighters, who’s now dedicated to continuing this revolutionary pedagogical lineage as a Black educator-activist, I have come to know some important, yet level truths.
- There is an evil legacy of falsely claiming white victimization to terrorize Black people.
White supremacy sources its power, not only from a racist ideology and hateful rhetoric, but from a narrative that perversely presents white people as victims.
That theirs is a race in danger of extinction. That they must save the white race from being washed away by a flood of non-whites. That they must save their women and children from harm by Black predators.
No matter how insane and wrong the premise, this paranoia fuels falsehoods about Black people—with deadly consequences.
It was a lie that a Black shoe shiner had assaulted a white woman in an elevator that gave white racists the state-sanctioned cover to commit with impunity the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921—murdering more than 300 Black men, women and children and destroying what was known as Black Wall Street, a close-knit, middle-class Black community.
It was a similar lie told in 1955 that two barbaric white men, and their smug community, used to justify the brutal killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Today, another lie is being perpetuated by white supremacists, but instead of their womenfolk, it’s their children they must “protect.” They’re galloping on their horses, pitchforks in hand, lighting their torches to put a stop to an education that, they say, makes students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their race.
This rhetoric and playbook used by Kevin Stitt, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, to sign HB 1775 into law just last month is being organized and deployed in state legislative bodies across the country.
In my home state of Pennsylvania, Republican State Representatives Russ Diamond and Barbara Gleim are staying on message as they spew similar racist propaganda to leglisate for policies that they say safeguard “our children” from teachings that make them feel “they are inferior or inherently bad based on immutable characteristics such as race and sex can be extremely damaging to their emotional and mental well-being.”
To be clear, by students, they mean—in every case—white students. For white supremacists the feelings of only white children matter. Their discomfort. Their anguish. Their distress.
Had they meant Black students, they would be effectively signing into law the end to teaching U.S. history as it is taught today with the majority of the lessons potentially making Black and other marginalized students feel discomfort, anguish and distress based on their race.
If you don’t understand what this kind of persistent assault on the psyche of Black children can mean, just look up images of Black lynchings. You’ll quickly find depictions of white families, smiling white men and women with their white children, picnicking underneath the dangling, mutilated corpses of human beings who look like the Black children in our classrooms and share their ancestry.
For as long as we’ve had a public school system, education has been misused to perpetuate the theology of white superiority. And, whenever opportunities arise to make progress toward racial and educational justice, groups of white people have organized around banning said progress.
In the brilliantly researched book, Fugitive Pedagogy, Dr. Jarvis Giles shares historical contexts of how Black teachers were often policed to snuff out any attempt to elevate Black struggle against the systems—including and especially—against educational systems. Black teachers often have two curricula: one for show, the other for what Black students need to know. He describes teachers with the whitewashed lies in their hands and Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s work on their laps.
To quote William Faulkner, we also know, “this past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Or, more searingly relevant, James Baldwin’s view: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals. I attest to this: the world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power…”
You can draw a straight line from the state-sanctioned and led racist redlining maps of the 1930s—which limited where Black families could buy homes and resulted in limiting the wealth-building potential of generations of Black families—to today’s disparities in education funding, academic performance and persistent school segregation.
You can see it today in the rise of taxpayer-funded schools during the Trump administration, where the curriculum is driven by evangelical Christian textbook publishers, out to profit by selling “educational” material encouraging the teaching of such nonsense as calling Martin Luther King, Jr. a communist agitator, and environmentalists haters of human life.
And you can see it in the latest manufactured McCarthyism-type outrage: the misconstruing of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Witness the legions of legislators across the country all racing to the bottom, trying to “fix” the problem they don’t understand with ever-more problematic legislation.
None of these racist legislators and their cronies have ever cared that our nation’s history is one of political crafting of legalized dehumanization for Black, Indigenous, or Brown people and their children. Through our schools’ history lessons, they have been taught they are inferior and inherently bad, potentially damaging their emotional and mental well-being, ever since they were allowed a public education.
None of these racist legislators and their cronies want the whole truth of history taught because that would mean children would learn to think critically and honestly. To ask questions, like whose voice is missing, whose perspective isn’t here, what’s the point of view, is it biased?
None of these racist legislators and their cronies understand that there are white students and parents who really do want the whole truth and, in doing so, acquire an empathy and understanding that helps them navigate the world with confidence, compassion for a collective humanity, and insight.
None of these racist legislators and their cronies are brave enough to admit that what anti-racism teaches is empathy—not complicit guilt nor hatred of white people. Empathy is a powerful seedling of the truth and reconciliation our country has never known.
None of these racist legislators and their cronies see that millions of white people are actually not like them. They are not white racists and supremacists.
But perhaps it will be our next generation of empathetic white children who will join forces as adult allies with Black and Brown people to make this a reality.
- History’s biggest lie is white supremacy.
White people are not superior. Not genetically, not culturally, not morally. Yet, the lie of white exceptionalism has been perpetuated throughout this nation’s history—and continues to be enforced—by racists bent on wielding power to dominate anyone they deem unlike, therefore inferior, to them. In the end, the lie harms all Americans.
It was Chief Justice Roger Taney and six other white supremacists on the U.S. Supreme Court, abetted by James Buchanan, a white supremacist president, who made the Dred Scott v. Sandford landmark decision in 1857—legally denying Black people, whether free or enslaved, American citizenship and constitutional rights and privileges.
Even when this ruling was voided with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 that outlawed slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 that guaranteed citizenship for “all persons born or naturalized” in the U.S., one of the worst rulings made by the highest court in the land continues to haunt and terrorize Black people 164 years later.
“…they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” -U.S. Supreme Court Justice Taney
If only in spirit and mindsets, this base law continues to be appropriated by white supremacists to justify their racism, bigotry and insanity. Without confronting our racist history, the white supremacist alibi propagated by the Dred Scott case, that Black people are less-than, will continue to have political willpower.
And, these racist legislators and educators who don’t want this history and current implications taught in schools.
From 1619 to today’s mass incarceration, the modern-day enslavement of Black and other marginalized people, and the police brutality and wanton murders of unarmed Black children, women and men, our nation’s history has shown that Black lives do not matter and they share a legacy.
White supremacists’ attempts to enforce a biased history is akin to an intellectual lynching, seeking to ensure our children don’t have the education they need to be able to recognize and change racist power dynamics. They want to strip history clean of our names, culture, language and stories.
What we fight for today is the power to tell the whole truth, the humanization of Black people—past, present and future. As someone once said, we don’t need to prove our humanity, but we damn sure will defend it.
Again, “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem” and we, as Black folks and parents, have a problem.
- Resistance against dehumanization and structural racism has been historically criminalized.
Native Americans who defended their families against white invaders. Black people, enslaved through white imperialism and savagery, who risked their limbs and lives to read and stay together as a family. Populist movement leaders of the Reconstruction Era who tried to unite Black and white masses to build a great society against white profiteers. Civil rights leaders and freedom fighters who became FBI targets. Black Lives Matter protesters who are labeled as terrorists.
Throughout our nation’s history, criminalization of the resistance has always been a key strategy of white supremacists.
Critical race theory that scrutinizes the American myth made up by white supremacists is just the latest bogeyman. Yet their tactics remain disturbingly the same.
- There are always zealots who stoke fear and violence—all with impunity. In Trump’s latest attempt to return to center stage, he sought to energize his base with calls for “Republicans at every level” to “move immediately to ban critical race theory in our schools.”
- Their offensives take a defensive posture. Their claims of victimization spur on savior instincts even among those reluctant to engage.
If you are a good, loving white parent who doesn’t want your white children harmed, the sophistry goes, then you must be against CRT and any other attempts to present a history that exposes a history of racism.
But in all this, what’s forgotten is that no child is born hating another. Nor are they born disrespectful, arrogant or smug. Nor are they born to subjugate, marginalize, oppress and undermine. They are raised and taught to be.
White parents worry history lessons that take into account the perspectives of Black people and other marginalized people will teach students of color to hate white people, and white students to feel guilty, if not hate themselves. But they don’t know their own children, who are saying, “Teach us the truth. We actually want to understand what’s happening now by understanding what happened in the past.”
That’s why educators can play such a vital role, but only if they have the courage and the right mindset, to teach and encourage all children to have positive racial identities as they acquire empathy for one another.
We will need educators who dont mind being looked at as criminal by white supremacist law and policymakers.
- They try to divide the resistance to conquer it.
Since the antebellum period when Black enslaved people could not legally marry and Black parents could never protect their children’s permanent place with them, the most basic social unit—family—was destabilized, undermined and destroyed for Black people.
Fast forward 150 years following the end of legal slavery, and still mass incarceration, the modern-day form of bondage, as well as pandemic-exposed health inequities, continue to tear apart Black families.
Yet, Black families persist and find strength in their resilience.
Whenever Black communities begin to unite with white allies and other communities of color, white supremacists also resort to divisiveness.
Jim Crow laws created a social psychology and disdain for Black people that appealed to poor whites who were taught that any gains made by Black communities were made at the expense of white communities.
The demonization of freedom fighters, and infiltration of federal informants, forced Black organizational strongholds and diverse coalitions to break down.
- In racist history-making, truth doesn’t matter. Fear-mongering does.
Critical race theory doesn’t paint our nation in evil terms, but it is useful in presenting the evil people who helped manufacture and maintain racial oppression in this country. Which is why CRT is being heavily targeted by the propaganda machinery of the right.
Doesn’t matter if very few actually have bothered to look it up and understand it. They just glom onto the idea that challenging racism is somehow racist. Never mind that they resisted culturally responsive teaching (crt) and Critical Race Theory (CRT), although they can’t define either, nor can they show where it is being taught and any negative impact of the teaching.
They just hear from their trusted media sources and spokespeople that today’s criminals are those who are trying to terrorize their white children, when the actual victims have been Black people—Black men, women and children.
Opponents of CRT—white supremacists and Black sympathizers alike—want to gloss over this terrible history. They want to present the heroes and heroic deeds without explaining the need for their heroism. This loopy logic reminds me of what Malcolm X clarified so powerfully:
If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress.
Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.
And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less healed the wound.
They won’t even admit the knife is there.
White supremacists and their Black sympathizers don’t want to acknowledge the knife is in our back. That healing doesn’t happen until you remove the knife, and address the wounds. What’s worse is that every lie they want to teach inflicts more pain and creates more scars.
- We must unite to overcome.
The real threat to the white supremacists’ power is not their feared eradication, nor the imagined indignities to their womenfolk.
No, what they truly fear is unity. Our unity. Unity among those of us who stand to oppose them.
Their exposure from an inescapable multitude of glares from Black people and our allies, including an ever-growing number of white students skilled in empathy and armed with confidence.
As Dr. Martin Luther King said, white supremacists were threatened by the Populist Movement of the Reconstruction Era when Black and white people tried to unite to build “a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”
Faced with what they considered to be a mortal threat, white supremacists over a century ago made it criminal, MLK explains, for “freedom-loving people” to organize, and worse, they divided Black people and our white allies with Jim Crow laws. More than mere physical separation, the legalization and enforcement of segregation created a psychological barrier that was far more impermeable.
The southern white aristocracy controlled their poorer brethren by telling them, as MLK stated, “no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the Black man.” This false superiority was passed on to their children, grandchildren and grand-students, segregating “southern minds from honest thinking.”
Longtime FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, issued the directive to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify” Black people. The likes of Hoover love their radicals but only if their radicals look like a Patrick Henry. To white supremacists, you can’t be a patriot who fights for independence if you’re Black.
Denigrating Black people, any people, is a “travesty of justice…perpetrated upon the American mind,” MLK rightly stated. No surprise, it’s a psychological trickery favored by white supremacists. With it, they divide not only Black people from their would-be white allies, they also divide Black people from one another.
Modern-day freedom fighters—including the ranks of Black Panther Party members and the lesser known Africa family of Philly MOVE—have been demonized so effectively that the so-called Black elite and once potential allies and colleagues have also eschewed them.
Their demonization has been underscored by “the endorsed [Black] spokesmen,” as Huey P. Newton called them.
It’s heartbreaking how our advances in truth-telling and honest thinking are subverted by the “Talented Tenth” of the 21st century. Black scholars and other elitists supporting the criminalization of the resistance by belittling our anti-racism as racist, the misguided work of “race hustlers.”
And they are good with their words.
Their “more complete picture of the African American experience” notes struggles and “our nation’s shortcomings,” “warts,” they say, but only to talk up Black success. They encourage a rich variety of perspectives—but only while zeroing in on Black achievements.
They disdain stories of discrimination and oppression. They disparage anyone who tells this ugly, but true, history. For them, America is a dreamy place “where people from every imaginable background” can realize their potential. And, if you don’t, that’s on you. Your laziness and lack of effort.
With all their intellect, do they not realize their sugar-coating makes way for whitewashing history? Do they not realize their romanticization of “individual agency and self determination” as “a defining feature of the Black experience in America” belies the systemic, institutionalized racism and social oppression throughout this nation’s history?
Do they want our revolutionary heroes to have died in vain?
You can’t lionize Dr. King without studying how he fought his entire life to remove “the roots of racism” and its many manifestations: segregation, as well as the denial of the rights to vote and to a just education. He mobilized entire communities to confront the adversary of white supremacy.
In their desire to become Black folk favored by white supremacists and mainstream media, they allow themselves to be pitted against other Black people, blasting holes into the united front so feared by our same enemy. In their calls to embrace a pollyanna version of history, they sow further divisiveness among Black people.
Our Black brothers and sisters blindside us. And they do this because they aren’t aware they’ve internalized white racism. As Dr. Carter G. Woodson reminds us,
…the Negro, thus educated, is a hopeless liability of the race…the only question which concerns us here is whether these educated persons are actually equipped to face the ordeal before them or unconsciously contribute to their own undoing by perpetuating the regime of the oppressor…”
Yet, coming together now is as critical as it has ever been—among Black people and along with allies of all racial identities—for the mobilization of entire Black and allied communities is what white supremacists fear the most.
When, for the briefest of moments, the country warily supported the vision of full and true citizenship for Blacks formerly enslaved across a Reconstructed south.
When the Black people of Montgomery, Alabama organized in 1955 as a united city against white supremacy.
When white America joined the civil rights movement after witnessing how Black people faced “terror and brutality with majestic scorn and heroic courage” in Birmingham eight years later.
When the Black Panther Party membership exploded from 400 to 5,000 with 49 offshoots and coalitions with diverse organizations nationwide after the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King.
When Blacks and allies across the country rose as one in support of the simple idea that Black Lives Matter.
When we organize to right the wrongs of the past by telling the whole truth of American history.
- Educator-activists, your role at the blackboard is vital.
Reality will always evade us if we are not able to teach the whole truth, including the long history of the victimization of Black people as a result of systemic, institutionalized racism and social oppression.
Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, knew the truth. She knew who the true victim was, and she went through unimaginable pain to reveal to the world the whole truth by insisting her son’s casket remain open, laying bare for the world what the white sadists had done.
A few months later, it was the image of Emmett’s brutalized face and body that gave Rosa Parks the resolve to refuse the driver’s order to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
The reason why the white supremacists are moving so swiftly to legislate against CRT is because they know the revelation of truth can set in motion the unification of Black communities and our allies that is desperately needed to implement justice for all. As Mamie Till-Mobley’s revelation sparked the civil rights movement, we know the potential power of our coming together for the whole truth.
And the biggest battlefield is the classroom.
Black educator-activists and allies, we have our work cut out for us. What we need now are exponential numbers of educator-activists to join us. People who can and will teach the whole truth, holding open conversations about race, racism and social justice. Only then can we truly prepare the next generation to live in a diverse society where we respect each other’s humanity.
Fellow educator-activists, know there are profoundly simple ways to encourage in our youth honest, critical thinking and engagement in the whole truth of history.
If you have Black students, ask them to share their #realizedIwasblack and #BlackAt…stories. If what they tell each other is full of negativity and adversity, then encourage them by teaching them about the history of our people’s resistance, advancements and achievements.
If you have white students, teach them the power of empathy. Share with them the stories of our allies, like those from the civil rights era, among them John Brown, Virginia Foster Durr, J. Waties Waring, Anne McCarty Braden, Herbert R. Kohl and so many others.
If you’re not a Black educator-activist, invite one to your class as a guest speaker. It could make all the difference for your Black students to meet someone who reflects their own experiences, worldviews and aspirations. Have them bear witness to the whole truth.
- Know the whole truth: this can happen again.
It’s a certainty that systemic racism will continue, and state-sanctioned murders of Black men, women and children will happen again and again, as long as white supremacists in power get their way and whitewash history.
The lynchings of more than 4,000 Black people from the 1870s until the 1950s went uninvestigated, devastating and terrorizing countless families for generations. One hundred years ago in Tulsa, dozens of white men were “deputized” so they could kill hundreds of Black men, women and children with impunity. The assassination of civil-rights leaders and freedom fighters. The murders of innocent Black people by the police.
We aren’t at war over just the truth. We are at war over our lives.
There are those even today who try to distort the truth by insisting the racists who stormed the capitol to murder government officials were Antifa and Black Lives Matter supporters disguised as Trump voters, disgruntled over a stolen presidency. If white supremacists get their way, this will be the history recorded with racists like Trump and senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz cast as the heroes.
What does it mean to be educated in this country?
For too long, it’s meant to be miseducated. How many “educated” white (and other) people knew about the Tulsa Race Massacre before this year’s unprecedented media coverage? How many children grow up learning what happened to Emmett Till, or about the long history of how Black lives did not matter – legislatively, academically, or otherwise?
If you’re curious about the state of our history education, do a litmus test.
Ask everyone you know about the Populist Movement, Jim Crow’s legalization of segregation, the Tulsa Race Massacre, the fight for Black people’s right to vote, the decimation of the Black Panther Party, the Philadelphia MOVE bombing and so on.
Most educated white people I know don’t know much about any of this, because their teachers didn’t know. But for many Black, Indigenous, and Brown people, this history is our lived history, something passed onto us. This history is embedded into our genes and lived experiences.
We don’t wait for teachers to tell our children about slavery, segregation, lynchings, Emmett Till, the assassinations of our civil-rights giants—not to frighten them, but to protect and inform them. We also tell them about our people’s heroes so they can find courage in their struggles, and form confident racial identities required to navigate in today’s unjust world. So our children can apply the Black blueprint – which originates on the continent of Africa and is present throughout the African Diaspora – to their context today.
You didn’t have to witness the Philly MOVE bombing to experience the particular effects of another racist chapter in America’s history. Whether it’s the mass incarceration of our uncles, cousins and sons or all too many Black families’ experiences of having their children over-disciplined and under-expected to achieve in school, the racist trauma continues to be perpetuated.
The only way to heal from this racial trauma and achieve a future that is racially just is to heal the knife wound—to recommit to educational justice. “The whole truth, and nothing but the truth” must be told in our classrooms. As educators, we must testify to the realities and balanced views of this nation’s history to arm all our students with the insights and willpower to forge a more equitable and just future.
We must protect our students, especially our Black students, from assaults on their psyche from white supremacists who don’t care about them and Black sympathizers who want to elevate only the next generation of elitists. We must empower their honest critical thinking, arm them with historical truths, empathy and resolve.
What happened in the past can pain both Black and white children, but taught well these lessons can also shape the generation who together can liberate education.
As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Truth and reconciliation are impossible without facing the actual history of this country. What it was and what it is. Once faced, we could actually build a nation where all men and women are created equal.
Before they burned down our schools. Today, white supremacists try to do the same but with mere keystrokes. They create budgets that defund them and laws to undermine educating the whole child with the whole truth.
So the fight continues from within school systems, inside classrooms and at the whiteboard. In legislative houses, higher ed, and boardrooms. As my mother, Aisha El-Mekki, would often quote: “we are continuing to speak the truth, even as our voice shakes…in anger, indignation, and power.”
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.