Educators say reactions to Charlottesville reveal need for better teaching of history

The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville is not an aberration but a continuation of centuries of white supremacy in the U.S.

A white nationalist demonstrator walks into Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. CREDIT: AP/Steve Helber
A white nationalist demonstrator walks into Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. CREDIT: AP/Steve Helber

After a white supremacist in Charlottesville rally grew increasingly violent, and eventually ended in the death of a 32 year-old counterprotester and injured 19 people, many Americans responded by saying that the violence carried out by white supremacists did not represent what America was about.

The Twitter hashtag #ThisIsNotUs trended on Saturday. Journalists, politicians, and activists said that this was not the America they knew and referenced the founding fathers in a way that suggested racism runs against everything the country stands for. But there was backlash to the hashtag, and rightly so. The United States was built on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, and white supremacists have been holding rallies and terrorizing black people for decades.

Educators from all over the country say that these responses show a naivete about American history, and have suggestions for how to better educate future generations.

Donte Felder, head teacher at Orca K-8, an alternative public school in Seattle, said of #ThisIsNotUs, “I feel like it is the liberal wording of Make America Great Again.”

“That we’re not this and this is not who we are, it is putting a blind eye to what happened historically, what is happening currently, and what will happen tomorrow,” Felder said. “Going from talking about slavery to civil rights to James Byrd Jr. getting dragged and decapitated in Texas. This is who we are. And in order to move forward, we have to acknowledge that.”

Educators say that it’s the job of teachers to make sure they give students the tools to learn more perspectives outside of the textbooks they receive, which may for example, focus on a sanitized version of the founding fathers’ stories and less on the institution of slavery. Parents, educators, and activists have brought attention to a skewed, and in some cases, downright inaccurate telling of U.S. history in recent years. In 2015, a Houston mother, Roni Dean-Burren, spoke out on social media after she discovered her son’s textbook called slaves “immigrants” and “workers.” Last year, a Connecticut school district pulled a textbook after a mother complained about a passage that said slaveowners “cared for and protected [slaves] like members of the family.” The text also boasted that slaveowners taught them to be Christian and to read and write, suggesting that slavery was some kind of improvement.

To combat these viewpoints, teachers can help students research on their own, ask students questions that will help them better understand why they hold certain ideas about history, and offer alternative texts that challenge dominant narratives about U.S. history that may attempt to sanitize slavery or absolve white political leaders of wrongdoing.

Valencia Clay, who is a humanities teacher in Harlem and author of the book Soundless Cries Don’t Lead to Healing, said history will always be a reflection of the people telling it and their perspective, and that teachers need to be aware of that as they teach.

“When you think about who is teaching, that is what they think is real and that’s really what history is. It’s really a distorted version of what happened but through whoever is telling it,” Clay said. 

She said that first, teachers need to re-educate themselves before they educate children on history.

“When you look at the anger, at the white power, white supremacists, whatever you want to call them, they have been taught a specific history in same way children in urban areas haven’t been taught the true history,” Clay added. “It is so important that now more than ever, we all re-educate ourselves before we can figure out what we are teaching these children.”

Christina Torres, an eighth grade English teacher at Punahou School in Honolulu, agrees. She said teachers need to remember they have “internal work to do” as “products of a system that has oppressed people and erased histories.”

“I know that especially out here living in Hawaii. I’ve met people out here who say, ‘Isn’t so nice that Queen Liliuokalani gifted the island?’ And it’s like, that’s not how that worked,” Torres said. “And so for me, I think some of it is that we’re quick to put that lens on other people or our students and the families of our students in terms of how we can help them instead of ‘Hey have I done the work myself? Have I questioned my own place in this system?'”

Torres said that she has seen more middle and high school activism challenging dominant cultural beliefs about history and asking for more multicultural approaches to education recently. She said students often come into class and push teachers to acknowledge what is happening is the news because they have access to more information than previous generations.

“They’re already seeing it on the news. It’s coming up on their Instagram and Twitter feeds. Theyre already being bombarded with these things, I’d rather have them bring it up to an adult they trust and talk through it with them than not,” Torres said.

Clay said that teachers often gloss over pieces of U.S. history, such as how slavery began, because they have a discomfort with it or don’t know very much about the history, but she encourages teachers to leave their comfort zone and do the work. “You know in your heart why you’re teaching what you’re teaching and that you’re doing the work,” Clay said. “So I say to push forward on doing that research on your own. Make sure people speak the truth.”

She added that students should be taught how to research historical facts so that they can better understand history. Instead of telling students how to feel, Clay wants students to find things out for themselves.

Torres said she is also taking the approach of simply asking students questions and having conversations about reliable sources for establishing facts about history and current events. As the adult in the room, she can’t get angry when a student says something hurtful about immigrants, but she can ask a student to question her own beliefs.

“I had one girl who said, ‘I’m glad Trump is building this wall,’” Torres said. “I’m like, ‘I’m not going to pop off on you because you’re 12 and I love you, but instead I’m going to be like, ‘Why do you think that? Where did you get that information? Is this a reliable source and what does that mean?'”

Felder takes a few different approaches to teaching history. He said he offers students a traditional history textbook and an alternative text, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and has a conversation with students about the differences between texts.

“You have to be careful and meet people where they are at,” Felder said. “You can’t force it own their throat. You’re tring to change the heart and mind of folks so you have to be truthful but at the same time delicate.”

Felder said pop culture has been a powerful tool for teaching students about serious issues, like the civil rights movement. He uses science fiction and fantasy stories in television and movies, such as Twilight Zone and Quantum Leap, to make historical events more accessible. For example, he connected the movie Zootopia to civil rights.

“We watched Zootopia and say the thematic premise was about knowing who you are and accepting other people for who they are and then we can connect that discussion into what is happening with civil rights,” Felder said. “Why were the people in the civil rights era fighting for the right to vote and the right to exist in a space without being violentally beaten?”

Felder added, “That’s how the majority of Americans have been raised, right in front of that TV, watching the Saturday morning cartoons, so when those messages are embedded in those movies or cartoons or books it’s easier to accept or acknowledge or say ‘What does this mean? I think that’s what this means. What does this mean to you?'”