Are you as sick of hearing the term critical race theory as I am? It’s just one of the more recent buzz phrases that serve to incite violence and rile up parents into unnecessary frenzy — all over a lesson only taught in colleges.
Some white parents’ rail that including any sort of Black history in their schools might somehow diminish their children’s self-esteem or evoke a sense of retroactive guilt. Black parents worry that adding their history to the school’s curriculum might result in more bullying and violence against their children or lead to feelings of inferiority.
Let’s remember that our country’s past has not always been so shiny and bright in the first place. History books have been woefully negligent in reporting much of America’s evils thus far, allegedly to protect young minds. But if the last year taught us anything, it’s that electronic gadgets prevent us from shielding our children from today’s horrors. They have questions about protest marches, sign-carrying, and the furor over masks. At age-appropriate times, we should expose them to museums and answer them honestly about all of it, not just about the history of slavery or the Civil War. There’s more of our past that they should learn.
Unquestionably, Black history provides the most horrendous example of the pain that one group can inflict upon another. For generations, livestock was treated better than Black people. But it certainly is not the only example from our past that should make Americans cringe.
Our country has a documented history of violence and discrimination against specific groups, often motivated as much by greed and envy as racial or religious prejudice. As each new group arrives, the old group worries about job security or the corruption of their families.
Following the potato famine in 1845, Irish people were met with help-wanted signs in windows that said, “Irish need not apply.” Later, although first hailed as heroes for completing the Transcontinental Railroad, attitudes about the Chinese morphed into the discrimination of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was in my history book. However, I don’t remember being told that white railroad workers were furnished with food and lodging not provided for the Chinese.
I vaguely remember being taught about westward expansion and manifest destiny in elementary school but very little about the worthless treaties used for centuries by the U.S. government to steal land from Native Americans. There’s an exhibit in the St. Louis Art Museum where our kids can start to investigate more about that.
By high school (which for me was in the Vietnam War era) we received a much broader view of the world wars, but even then, I certainly have no memory of any in-depth discussion of Japanese internment. Certainly, I never knew that Japanese people were taken from their homes throughout South America and interned in the United States until I visited the traveling Smithsonian exhibit at the Soldier’s Memorial this October before it left. What a great field trip that would have been for high schoolers if not for coronavirus restrictions.
Yes, the Holocaust was discussed, but I do not recall ever hearing about the S.S. St. Louis, a ship of 937 (mostly Jewish) refugees seeking sanctuary who were refused entry and escorted from our ports in 1939, forced to return to Europe. Over 200 of these people were subsequently killed when the Nazis eventually captured the countries who’d initially accepted them. When it reopens, a trip to the local Holocaust Museum could be informative for older children.
As for the Black experience, unearthing information about the Tulsa race riots shook the country in 2020, but I’d never been taught about similar riots that happened even earlier. Black people were massacred in Atlanta in 1906, East St. Louis in 1917, and in Chicago; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Washington, D.C., all in 1919. A trip to the National Museum of African American History in Washington, even virtually, could be a great learning experience for kids of all races.
To quote George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When they’re ready, teach your children everything about our history without regard for any buzzwords. It’s the true American history after all.
Janet Y. Jackson is a Post-Dispatch columnist and Editorial Board member.