My Students, Too, Sing America
2012 Fishman Prize winner Whitney Henderson, who currently teaches eighth grade history and serves as Assistant Principal at KIPP Central City Academy in New Orleans, grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, not far from Ferguson, Missouri. We asked her to contribute to our 2014 Favorite Thinkers blog post, which will run in this space tomorrow. But what she wrote—a brave reflection on the grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, the subsequent protests in Ferguson, and how these events have affected her thinking on how to teach American history—deserved more attention. We have decided to run her post in full today, in the spirit of addressing complex questions head-on.
The Friday before Thanksgiving break, I left school with a few lessons planned for after the holiday. My copies were made. My luggage was packed. The only thing left to do was arrive home in St. Louis, Missouri, but that arrival happened to take place on the night of the grand jury’s decision in the case of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who fatally shot unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown. By 8:00 that evening, almost every television in the region was tuned in to hear Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announce the decision: “No probable cause exists to file any charges…”
Beyond my sense of disgust and disappointment, there was one thing I was certain of at the moment: I would need a new lesson on Monday.
My mother turned to me. “I know you weren’t actually surprised by this decision, were you?” I nodded silently, but in reality I was surprised. Surprised that our justice system continuously fails people of color, like the students I teach every day in my 8th grade history class. They come from all 17 wards of New Orleans, but with one shared ethnicity and one shared hope: to learn their history as Americans, their roles and obligations in our democratic society, and how the government protects the basic rights of all of its citizens.
Just days after I’d finished teaching our unit on American Government, I was witnessing a public prosecutor (one of the terms we’d defined in class) sounding like a defense attorney. It turns out the passages about justice that my students read in their American history books still don’t apply to them.
Within minutes of the grand jury’s announcement, I heard bullets fired just blocks away from my parents’ home. Within a few hours, all over the city, the streets were filled with angry protestors exercising their first amendment rights. Others shared their opinions on social media, where it seemed like the worst in some people was suddenly revealed. One post in particular stood out in my Facebook feed: “Why are they destroying their own city? I just don’t get why they are so angry?!”
I couldn’t bring myself to respond to such an utter lack of perspective on our nation’s history. This lack of empathy is too often rooted in the way we teach history in our schools. History in the typical textbook is told through a lens of white privilege. It portrays the outraged colonists of the Boston Tea Party, for example, as heroes who channeled their anger into one of the greatest revolutions of all time. Yet through a different lens, masked protestors boarding someone else’s ship and destroying $18,000 worth of British tea could be seen as criminal. Our history is quick to glorify such demonstrations—when white people take the lead.
Let me be clear: This does not mean I believe in teaching my students to embrace property damage or violent forms of protest. It means teaching students that, throughout history, demonstrations and free speech can look very different through different lenses. In teaching our first amendment rights, students of all backgrounds need to know that those rights apply equally to all. Including, equally, those who are advocating on behalf of Officer Wilson and those who believe an injustice has been done by failing to indict him.
As an educator of black children, my daily struggle is to toggle between the abridged and unabridged versions of history for the sake of my student’s self-worth, giving them different lenses to interpret history. Textbooks and the media too often reinforce a dangerous message for my students: America’s values—the very things this nation stands for—basically don’t apply to you.
Yet in the words of Langston Hughes, “I, Too, Sing America.” And so do my students. I want them to understand history through a lens that is broad enough to include the experiences of people of color. I want them to understand how oppression and resistance have occurred in many ways throughout history, from masked colonists challenging colonial authority to thousands demonstrating in the streets of Ferguson and across the country.
I want to give them a sense of history that does not begin with the slave trade. Stories of disenfranchisement and economic castration need to be told alongside stories of the successes of freed men and women. I want them to be able to put oppression and resistance in context. Resistance like we see in Ferguson.
“So why are they mad?” I responded to the Facebook post. “They are mad because they are tired of blood etching the pavements of American concrete. They are mad because they want justice to be served for all of us, even the ones whose duty is to protect and serve us. They are mad because one day it’s Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Darrius Simmons, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the next day it’s one of our students, our fathers, our sons. So just like the American Revolution and so many other ones throughout our history, just let this unnamed Revolution be.”