In the days surrounding the release of the Tyre Nichols video, I found myself listening to Nina Simone when her cover of “Strange Fruit” came on. I’ve heard this song, about lynching, a million times. It never feels good, but that day it hit me differently. Perhaps because only an hour before that, I was discussing with my teenage son the many reasons he should not watch the video of Tyre Nichols’ murder. And yet, as I listened to Nina mourn the “strange and bitter crop” of “Black bodies swinging in the breeze,” I kept thinking about a contradiction.
The idea that despite the harm, we (Black people) are almost required to watch such things, to bear witness, in order to seek justice. But the stories of Black life beyond struggle, beyond slavery and civil rights, are unacceptable in our books and curriculum for fear that they may cause white guilt.
The Missouri Senate continues debating a bill to limit how race and history are taught in Missouri schools. This mirrors moves in several local districts throughout the state that suggest that the potential harm of white guilt is more concerning than the actual harms of racism. These and similar measures elsewhere, including the College Board’s gutting of the advanced-placement Black history course, tell teachers, citizens and our society to not look, to not bear witness to the harms of racism in this country. This war against truth, especially against the truth of racial brutality, past and present, only promises to perpetuate injustice.
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I teach some of our best and brightest students about the history of the American school. Despite their success in our K-12 education system, they are shocked at the racist, classist and gendered roots of the American school. Shocked that they never learned about Native American boarding schools that violently removed youths from their families to “civilize” them. Shocked at the violence wrought on enslaved youths learning to read or write. Shocked by the vast disparities in resources provided to segregated schools for Black youths across the country or Mexican American youths in the West. To me, this suggests that what our students need is more, not less, discussion of race and racism in K-12.
Maybe helping our kids to understand the centrality of racism in the development of our educational system is necessary. Maybe teaching them that most of the gains we have made occurred because they also benefited white America, the way Brown v. Board of Education improved America’s image on the world stage. Maybe teaching them that the power of telling all of our stories, including the stories of Black people, is necessary to fully understand and address racism. Maybe this is what our Missouri Congress doesn’t understand.
As a mother, I’m troubled by a contradiction. Whether my son chooses to watch the Tyre Nichols video or not, he endures trauma each time someone who looks like him is brutally murdered. We have been forced to watch and endure violence against our very existence for hundreds of years. Yet it’s a step too far for white youth to learn the very history of the structural racism and oppression that has caused and continues to cause this violence, because it is uncomfortable. Parents are concerned about “protecting white children from the imagined guilt that comes with learning the difficult facts of Black history,“ as Florida scholar Tameka Bradley Hobbs put it, but not concerned about how suppressing these facts hurts my kids, all kids. Why is their discomfort more important than our humanity?
As the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” remind us, lynchings have historically served a dual purpose as a visual visceral warning to us, to Black folks, a reminder of what could be our fate. But also as a message to white people that we are less than human. Similarly, bills like the one debated in the Missouri Senate serve as a message about whose stories we tell, whose rights matter, whose lives matter.
Our legislators would suggest that books and content telling the stories of Black people don’t deserve space on the shelves, that history demonstrating the truths of oppression shouldn’t be taught, and that anything that doesn’t sell the myth of white supremacy is unsafe for our schools. They suggest that these stories, this history, these truths of the racism that permeates our history as a nation, are too uncomfortable for our white schools. That our white kids are too fragile to understand that our current social context is a result of not only slavery but decades of racism, discrimination and violence at the hands of white America. They also miss that learning from this history is the very way forward. Bearing witness, learning truth, is the only way we begin to chip away at the vast walls racism has created.
Kelly Harris, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Washington University, a resident of St. Louis and a mom.