“We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom.” —Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
This past September, I had the privilege to speak with Dr. Dena Simmons during a Facing History webinar about how social-emotional learning can help us realize an anti-racist future. It was on the day that the grand jury in Louisville, KY made the decision not to charge anyone for the murder of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old unarmed African-American woman fatally shot in her apartment. Both Dr. Simmons and I felt the heaviness of this verdict, and the need to have an honest conversation about the times we are living in as Black women educators. Dr. Simmons has since written an article for ASCD in which she notes that Black women educators always “show up...because we know our work is critical to Black youth in white-dominated school systems...even if it comes at a cost. But we are exhausted.”
During this election season, educators are navigating conversations with their students about politics, race, and racism in ways that seem without precedent, all while facing real pressures to remain nonpartisan. This tension notwithstanding, it’s necessary to understand race and racism as a political issue of membership and power, rather than a partisan one of liberal or conservative ideology. Doing so creates space to more truly confront injustice in policy and practice. As educators, this critical distinction can help us have the nuanced discussions we aim to have with our students around civic engagement, with a historical lens that contextualizes our moment.
At Facing History, we stand with educators who are working to disrupt rising white nationalism.
Since the Unite the Right Rally of 2017 in Charlottesville, white nationalist groups have become increasingly visible on the national stage, deepening threats of racial and antisemitic violence across the country. Indeed, these threats are so severe that the Department of Homeland Security prepared draft reports (recently released to the press) indicating that “white supremacist extremists” currently pose the greatest terror threat to the nation.
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.