Friday came with a jolt to my heart as I navigated through Facebook: A friend in a group posted about how a Utah school quietly announced that they were going to allow students and families to opt-out of Black history teachings this month. Although the school has since backpedalled from this announcement due to the inevitable rightful backlash that followed, the feeling didn’t immediately go away. The act was already done, and it was appalling. Why should a white person have the privilege of their history being taught as a priority when other races get their history shushed and told it’s “optional” to learn?
During Black History Month, this is further appalling. We should never give people the option not to be immersed in this uncomfortable history. When we do not embrace an understanding of the history of folks who are not white, we erase true history to make us feel better, at the expense of others who don’t have that privilege.
Uncomfortable history is essential to our children’s curriculum. I know this to be factual because I was denied it in my own upbringing by the teachings in the small Midwest town I grew up in as a child, where the diversity around me was, to put it bluntly, tremendously lacking. It affected me as a mixed-race Hispanic. It put a wedge where none should exist, placing my identities at war with what history deemed to be worthy of note. Why were the stories of that part of my history reduced to simply being “others”?
The route of teaching history as it has been for generations here in America, most recently exemplified by Trump and the “Patriotic Education” model, insists in its omissions that there is something not OK about sets of people who were not white. History will note that people not white are to be reduced in terminology and stories. They were “savages” or “slaves” written in the footnotes to elevate white history. While this may seem to be part of the history of “diversity,” as some folks would like to couch the racism in the liner notes of subtext, it is a very calculated narrative that hinders folks from growth and movement forward to a better world.
I didn’t learn about this uncomfortable history until much later, when I became a self-educated adult. I’ve had to seek out stories that I didn’t get the honor of learning as a child. Stories that were painful. Stories that were beautiful through the pain of a horrific history. Stories of people who were encouraging transformation, questioning what is mainstream and revered by some, at perhaps the expense of someone else.
Was this purposeful? Did my own parents contribute to the omissions/lies of a “patriotic” education? Who would I be as a person, let alone a parent if I rubber-stamped that? I’d be a person that didn’t welcome growth.
These facts lead me to tears. Why is America not better than this yet? Why has there not been growth from it? Why aren’t these pieces of history things to celebrate and embrace for more than just a month? (Like seriously the whole “just a month” thing is frustrating in itself to me, as I feel like it’s simply placating folks to save face from the fact that it’s not part of the regular curriculum.) Why would a district consider teaching this only if a parent feels that’s OK to “burden” their child with it? Are you friggin’ kidding me here?
I want to have everyday conversations with kids who tell me that they learned more about Black history than slavery. I want to be able to have everyday conversations with kids who know who Cesar Chavez is — because of the works of his civil rights activism and not because of his time working in fields as a child, as is taught in schools currently, or just because he happens to have a street named after him here in Los Angeles.
I want to live in a world where our children know about Ida B. Wells and not just Susan B. Anthony. I want to live in a world where our children know about Jean-Michael Basquiat and not just Andy Warhol.
I want us to dig deeper and expand on the few stories that we are told too. I want to live in a world where our children know about Claudette Colvin and not just Rosa Parks. I want to live in a world where children know about Isabel Villaseñor and not just Frida Kahlo. I want to live in a world where we get to learn about the multitudes of diverse historical figures in our world in the plentiful way that they exist beyond the white landscape that America would like to try to insist is what would “make America great again.”
I want families to live in a world where our timelines celebrate Black, Mexican, Asian, and every background as loudly and proudly as Americans praise those who are white. This is a history we should never have opted out of learning about. This month and every month, I wish for a better future, which absolutely cannot be better until we sit down and do the work not allowing folks to even consider opting out of it.
As novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mentioned in her powerful TED Talk, “There is a danger in a single story.” Let’s opt into telling more than the single stories we have allowed to be conditioned into the fabric of America. The best things in life are often learned in the realm outside of the comfortable. It’s time to embrace that and grow already.
Make these children’s books starring Black and brown girls part of your kids’ essential reading.