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By Nehemiah D. Frank, founder and editor in chief
History class in middle and high school would have made more sense if teachers used books like Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by American author Ibram X. Kendi or the abridged version of the book Stamped. It certainly would have made the racial anxieties I felt growing up while Black in this country less severe. Because navigating racist systems during my adolescent years, even into college, was often a bewildering experience.
And although racism was never a problem for my white classmates, it was my public enemy number one.
This invisible villain seemed to strike me, and other Black students, in our most vulnerable state in life, in our maturing years—while we were mentally unarmed, unskilled and unprepared.
I sat innocently in American classrooms, ready to be assimilated and self-destructive. And I internalized the racism being taught through my schoolwork, spoon-fed to me by my teachers—not knowing when or what to question.
The other Black students and I learned to harm ourselves as we became the echo chambers of white supremacist ideas. And sadly, we didn’t even realize what we were learning—we were too young to comprehend that we were learning racist ideas.
I sat in my history classes year after year, wholly confused by fallacies, wondering: Why wasn’t the 14th Amendment enough? Why is life still harder for the average Black person in America?
I watched videos in class about how Black people were given ridiculous literacy tests in order to register to cast a ballot. And even then, many Black people were denied their legal right to vote. But my teachers never mentioned the R-word. Racism. We never talked about how its structural consequences created our nation’s ghettos, or why the schools on the other side of the Potomac were poorly funded and created an infinite cycle of poverty for many Blacks.
Conversations explicitly concerning matters of race or how to combat racism never came up in the classes I attended. My teachers never told me that what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and many others were fighting against, was in fact, a racist culture that operated and sustained itself on racist ideas from our nation’s past. I was simply taught that these iconic American trailblazers and the Civil Rights Movement only aspired to get Black people the access to ride on the front of the bus, attend white schools and have the privilege of sitting with white people in restaurants.
While we studied how the Founding Fathers of America used John Locke’s theories to help frame the U.S. Constitution, missing were the lessons that revealed how Locke justified the enslavement of Black people. We never learned that in 1689, this highly revered political theorist, whose basic idea is taught in every school, published the essay, titled, “Two Treatises of Government,” where he states,
“slaves, who being captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters.”
Had I been offered this information by my teachers my natural tenacity would have caused me to question Locke’s motives.
My history teachers never taught me to question whether Locke, or the men his writings heavily influenced, thought the enslavement of Blacks people was a justifiable act. Nope! They never taught me that. They never taught me how Locke was an investor and beneficiary of American slavery. That could have been a teachable moment about how monetary reward can corrupt a person. In fact, Locke’s practices stood in direct opposition to his ideas about natural rights; unless he saw Blacks as property and not fully human, which certainly seems to be the missing component from my history lesson. I had been denied that information.
Perhaps I would have been more of an examiner of the things that were presented to me, making me more of a critical thinker—if only I had been taught to do so.
Am I advocating that students not be taught about John Locke or how his theories were a major influence on the U.S. Constitution? No! But I am charging our nation’s curriculum developers to include the whole story of this nation, including its racist ideas. And I’m advocating that American teachers adjust their lesson plans accordingly. Because by not doing so, they deny Black children and their non-Black classmates the opportunity to think more critically about how race played a major role in our society, its policies and the American economy.
My teachers never told me that America was built on racism.
Today I can only speculate that my presence in their majority-white classrooms, in their majority-white schools was enough to prove that an in-depth conversation about racist systems, how they came about, and how they impacted the American society today wasn’t an important enough history lesson to include in my middle or high school curriculum. But my position in America as a Black boy who would inevitably become a Black man severely warranted that conversation and those history lessons.
Because if history was thoroughly taught with Black kids and their people’s story in mind, perhaps we wouldn’t have millions of Americans marching in the damn streets during a global pandemic because of the continued racial injustices we see against Black lives.