In his speech at Mount Rushmore on Independence Day, Donald Trump asserted, “Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but were villains.”
Exactly what are our children being taught in school? Are they learning about hatred? Yes. But until recently they were learning about hatred in other countries—about brutal dictatorships in far-away lands. Ask anyone who paid the least bit of attention in school, and that person could probably name at least a few of the many atrocities from history’s leaders.
A more appropriate question is this one: What aren’t our children being taught? What has been omitted from lessons to ensure that our children grow up with a love of America at the cost of being blind to the brutalities of our history?
I am reminded every day just how woefully ignorant many of us are about what it means to grow up Black in this country. Recently, I’ve been reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. As I began reading, I remembered that I had written a paper on apartheid in college, so I knew many of the facts about the history of South Africa. However, as I did research, not once did any of the opinions available to me at the time suggest a similarity to the institutional racism that is also part of America’s heritage.
After college, as a teacher in an oral communications class in the years before apartheid ended, I listened as many of my students gave speeches railing against apartheid. All of them had a tone that suggested, “Why can’t South Africans do what the Civil Rights Movement did in our country?” At the time I couldn’t enlighten them because I held much the same view of America. I was the blind leading the blind in a very white world.
In his introduction to Part III of the book, Trevor Noah says this:
In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust…As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. “Well, that was shameful, now wasn’t it?”
In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, this history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.” It was the same for us. “Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.” Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension.
After nine years of teaching English in southern West Virginia, I moved to Maryland to teach in a school in the D.C. suburbs with an overwhelmingly white population. A few years later I was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for an independent study of women novelists who were largely unrepresented in the literary canon. That summer I read Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler, but, more importantly, for the first time I encountered Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison.
Reading these women and learning about the context in which they wrote changed forever the way I taught English. I had never read a novel by a Black female author, and I vowed that I would try to ensure that no student who ever spent a semester in my literature classes would be able to say the same. I didn’t always teach those works well, but I tried.
The experience also changed the way I taught other works. I distinctly remember one young Black man whose parents asked that he be given another book to read while the class read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He told me that he’d like to read the novel so that he could see for himself whether it was racist, so I called his parents. I told them that I would be happy to provide him an alternate reading, but I laid out the case for reading Twain. They agreed, and I introduced the novel by having the class read arguments for and against the novel. Looking back, I now know I could have done more.
The magnitude of what I wasn’t taught—and what, for a long time, I didn’t teach—is staggering. I don’t remember the first time I heard the name Emmett Till—and for very good reason. While Jet Magazine published the images of Emmett Till’s face, white publications protected their readers from the most graphic of the images.
A few months after the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, I was invited to join a group of mostly African-American friends when they had an extra ticket. When we got inside, some of the elevators were broken, and the lines to get into the exhibits on the lower floors were very long. Our group decided to walk up the escalators and start on the floors that celebrated the accomplishments of Black people, including a wonderful exhibit of President Barack Obama.
I wasn’t fully prepared for what came next. We went to the lowest floor, where exhibits displayed artifacts from slave ships. I will never forget my astonishment as I looked at the countries listed on the walls, with the names of the ships and the number of the enslaved who were lost during the voyage or sold as slaves in the United States. One ship had only a single survivor by the time it reached America’s shores. And nearly every European country was complicit in the slave trade.
But when I got to the events of the 20th Century, the Emmett Till exhibit flattened me. As a mother, I cannot fathom Mamie Till’s pain or the courage it took for her to demand that America look into the face of her son.
I cannot fathom, either, how it’s taken another 65 years for righteous anger to erupt in the streets of America—an anger that demands that this time, white people like me do not look away.
And yet many of us are still looking away, even as the cameras roll. Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, NBC released the documentary Hope and Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media, and at the beginning of June, the network made it available online. Black journalists say in the documentary that they don’t know a single Black person who hasn’t heard the name Emmett Till or seen that image—that it’s their Kennedy assassination or 9/11 moment—that they can tell others where they were when they first saw the image.
Dr. King and every Black in this country has stared injustice in the face for far too long as whites have retreated to the comfort of looking away. Fifty-seven years ago next month, Dr. King stood on the mall and, in his “I Have a Dream Speech,” stressed “the fierce urgency of now.”
If you’re white and you’ve been turning away, read the stories, watch the videos and the documentaries—if you have the courage. If you have an ounce of human compassion, you will come away changed. And that is exactly the sort of patriotism your country needs from you. Now.