We ended last school year in a time of unraveling. On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd was murdered under the knee of Derek Chauvin while three other police officers stood by as accomplices. We as educators rose to support and hold space for our students to process and situate this moment in its larger movement, in defense of Black lives, and in the mourning of so many others. A reckoning took hold on the conscience of the nation, and James Baldwin’s words rang loud and clear: “History is literally present in all that we do.” We each were personally called to face our own positionality, our own biases, and our own complicity in sustaining systemic oppression—a call that is and will be ongoing.
“We are tired of the killings and injustice.” What can be clearer? What can be more reasonable? Those are the words of George Hill of the Milwaukee Bucks when asked why he and his teammates decided to boycott their scheduled NBA Playoff Game on Wednesday. These are young men deciding to walk away from not just the game they love but also from their livelihood. Many of these young men are fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing professional basketball. But they, like countless others, are tired of the killings and the injustice. It’s reasonable to expect that after all the media attention, protests, conversations, tears, sweat, and countless organizations claiming a renewed commitment to racial justice that one would give serious pause to shooting a Black man in the back. Yet here we are again. 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by police officers while entering the driver’s side of a vehicle with his children in the back seat. Thank you, Milwaukee Bucks, for not playing, for not defaulting to business as usual. There is a lot in our country to disagree about, but it’s hard to imagine how anyone cannot be tired of the killings and injustice. This has to be bipartisan, one cannot say that there are two sides to these senseless and too often lethal shootings.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
What have our communities and nation chosen to memorialize and why? These are among the questions that Americans are grappling with in the midst of massive social upheaval and a growing list of instances in which protesters are removing or defacing monuments celebrating historical figures—monuments they feel celebrate racist legacies and signal an ongoing commitment to upholding racism. This wave of direct action has also spread to countries like England and Belgium as their populations reckon with the legacies of racism and colonialism in their own corners of the globe. Facing History invites educators to explore the following lessons on the contested meaning of monuments and historical symbols, as well as how new monuments and symbols have the potential to ground us in narratives that aid repair:
Each year for Independence Day, students of history read and reflect upon Frederick Douglass’ landmark speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” In recent years, scholars have begun to reexamine the life and legacy of this famous abolitionist and orator. Guest writer Thomas Simpson offers a review of historian David Blight's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Thomas holds a master's degree in History from Georgetown University and is a core member of Facing History's Marketing and Communications team.
In collaboration with Facing History UK, educator Sanum Khan recently interviewed 18-year-old Kam Lambert about his experiences of growing up as a mixed-race young man in Britain, and how the events of recent months have impacted him. His insights and experiences send several powerful messages to us all within and beyond Britain. Facing History UK is an entity of Facing History and Ourselves, and Sanum Khan is a Facing History teacher and Specialist Leader of Education for Religious Studies and Personal, Social and Health Education in Buckinghamshire.
In a recent interview, I spoke with educator Emily Haines—teacher and literacy coach at the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the South Bronx. A founding teacher at the Facing History School in Manhattan, Haines discusses her experience being an out lesbian, white, middle-class teacher over her 22-year career, as well as approaches she recommends to LGBTQ educators she coaches and how she deploys intersectional thinking to support members of her school community.
As the coronavirus pandemic ravages communities across the country, particular communities are being attacked by an equally pernicious force. Its manifestations include the protesters in Michigan who recently stormed the state capital donning swastikas, nooses, and Confederate flags as they demanded an end to lockdowns. Or the parallel protest in Illinois where a woman held a sign displaying a German phrase famously emblazoned on Nazi concentration camps. And for many months, Asian Americans continue to be the victims of increased harassment and hate crimes in cities around the country. As medical leaders race to halt the spread of the pandemic, it is clear that we are not only battling a viral assailant. We are witnessing the lethal effects of a political establishment that permits and even perpetuates violence, as well as small but mighty groups of upstanders calling for change. For this dimension of the crisis, cultivating a culture of upstanding is the antidote we most dearly need, and it starts in the classroom.
This past fortnight has seen an alarming number of antisemitic and racist incidents in the news: in Germany, two people were killed and many more terrorised in a mass shooting attempt that targetted a synagogue; in Bulgaria, football fans taunted players with racist chants and Nazi salutes; in Hertfordshire, a teacher allegedly “joked” about sending primary school pupils who failed to complete their work “to the gas chamber” (and then told them not to tell anyone); and in politics, another Labour politician resigned from the party citing the rise of antisemitism as the reason for her departure.
Summer 2019 marks the centennial of what author and activist James Weldon Johnson referred to as “Red Summer,” a series of 1919 lynchings and other acts of violence against African Americans across the country. These events, which unfolded in several cities including Chicago and Washington, DC, are not widely known or taught. But they should be as our nation grapples with the history of racism and its legacies.