An Open Letter To Teachers About DeSantis And Others Like Him

Dear Fellow Socially Conscious Teacher,

I have been thinking about you so much, what you and I are going through, and how to be there for each other.  Recent news made me think of James Baldwin’s powerful opening in his 1963 –  “A Talk to Teachers.”

Speaking in front of a group of educators he stated:  

“…to any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible – and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people – must be prepared to ‘go for broke.’ Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.”

In this speech, Baldwin goes on to address how he believes the responsibility of educators is to respond to racism in America and encourage Black students to seek liberation. Baldwin’s warning about resistance and his strong desire for teachers to uplift students of color couldn’t be more relevant today.  A racist is a bully, and a bully likes to target education for the benefit of the masses.

Fellow educators, like you, I am angry, pissed off and frightened by the news that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is banning AP African American Studies from his state.  I am just so OVER the white washing of American History.  It’s bad for our schools, it’s bad for our teachers, and it’s definitely bad for our students in a polarized country.  First, I want to share my rage, and then recommend a response to increasing asinine attacks on school curriculum.  

It’s the discourse that pisses me off the most. Why is the assumption that any teaching of African American History assumes that there is some sort of forced discussion of white privilege on white students?

I wrote about this unfortunate discourse for the Pulitzer Center.  Critics say any teaching of race forces white students to learn about privilege and implicit bias RATHER than celebrating how African American studies provides a means for Black students to investigate the struggles and achievements of their ancestors after the arrival of enslaved Africans.  Current discourse prioritizes a false need of protecting some students at expense of the education of Black students and teachers of color. I do not care if you call it African American History, AP African American studies, Black History, or Social Justice studies, what is so wrong with having students study how the Black experience in America made the country better!?

Teaching students that racism exists matters.  Teaching students that Black people were recently 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis highlights to them that, yes, institutional racism still exists in this country.  Teaching students about racialized terrorism post-Reconstruction allows for them to make connections to the Jan. 6th insurrection where the Confederate Flag was proudly displayed by white supremacists.  Teaching students that perhaps Lincoln was not the “Great Emancipator,” and was a racist who called Black people “creatures” encourages students to make their own decision about who should be honored and celebrated for their actions. Teaching students the extent to which millions of Americans profited from forced enslaved labor will promote student understanding of the racial wealth gap. Teaching students to compare and contrast forms of resistance prepares them for confronting racism today.  Teaching students about the beauty of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing, Bessie Smith’s music, or Louis Mailou Jones’ artwork provides students the opportunity to celebrate a positive Black identity. ALL of this history matters.

King knew how to stand up to the bullish behavior of southern governors. In response to the blatant political tactics in an effort to maintain segregation in schools and other public places, he frequently pointed out how politicians used racist “creativity” for political gain.  Specifically, he identified one of the “better minds” of the powerful and racist Georgia governor,  Eugene Talmadge. In a 1947 college newspaper, a young King also wrote a warning to teachers about the racist educational ploys of such governors: 

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living…… ‘brethren! ’Be careful, teachers!’”

My Black students and families understand this about their history.  They understand the challenges in access to education for students of color.   Quality schools, gifted programs, and now AP African American Studies are frequently denied to certain students based on their zip code, and now unfortunately we can add an entire state.  

So what are we socially conscious teachers to do in response to actions taken by Ron Desantis and others across the country?  Well, a lot.  First, I think it’s important for educators to reach out to families in their community.  Share the curriculum, celebrate and show families the appropriate work students are learning in their classrooms.  Especially reach out to families of color to learn their perspectives.  I am particularly concerned that their voices are being lost in these battles of curriculum.  Here are just a few recent responses I got from a student and parent about why they believe any African American history course is important.  

“Learning about African American history in high school has benefited me from learning more about my culture and history in this country since it is not really taught with greater emphasis than just black people were slaves, they were free, segregation, segregation ended, black people are all good. When that’s not the complete truth! And having African American history gave greater depth to what was really going on with people of color back then and now. African American history is American history. Without it you’re not telling the complete truth about this country!”  – former student and current sophomore at East Stroudsburg University

I don’t think that it’s just important for my child to learn African American History. I think every child should learn it. I really think it helps to deal with racism. It teaches my child what his ancestors went through and some of the things they’ve overcome. I think that learning our history may help our people to be more productive citizens, to want to better their communities. I think it may help other races to understand what issues we have gone through and may help them to want to come together to become allies and better Americans.” -a parent of one of my current African American History students. 

What Black families want in classrooms matters too.  I want to acknowledge that families in my West Philadelphia school community are supportive of my curriculum.  Yet, I am fully aware that this is not the case for educators in other locations in the country.  One tip I have learned from educators in states where there are critical race theory bans is that teachers explicitly frame the lesson they are teaching around the standard and not the historical content.  This helps provide coverage for educators, because if there’s a backlash or complaint, a teacher can respond about the specific skill students are learning. 

Specifically, for Black educators, we need to respond to this educational racism by leaning on our ancestors.  My grandmother was a descendent of enslaved-people.  She was born in Grenada and did not know how to read or write.  On some plantations, if an enslaved person was caught reading or teaching another to read, they were tortured and murdered.  Denying Black people an education has been a primary tool of oppression to keep white people in power.  Banning AP African American Studies is no different.  Teachers need to remind administrators, politicians, and critics of this history.  The state of Florida seems to have no problem with students taking AP European history.  DeSantis accepts students learning about colonizers and enslavers.  Those courses never seem up for debate.  We socially conscious teachers need to speak up and point out this hypocrisy, and remind administrators, politicians, and policy makers about the racist past of education.

I know this work is challenging, frustrating, exhausting, and infuriating.  Yet, dear socially conscious teacher, we must not forget our true “purpose of education.”  For as Assata Shakur wisely stated, “The schools we go to are reflections of the society that created them.  Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that knowledge will set you free.” 

I believe in us and the work we do.

Yours in partnership,

Ms. Henry



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