Critical Race Theory (CRT) hit the news and social media with images of parents crying at school board meetings, stories of superintendents sending emails to their teachers to avoid conversations about CRT, and educators wondering what they should do. The situation grew even more serious as actual laws began to pass, state after state. School and government leaders are using soundbites of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech incorrectly to support their cause. Dr. King also said, at the age of 16 in an essay titled “The Purpose of Education” that he wrote while attending Morehouse College, “The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”
My fellow educators quickly found themselves on the front lines as their state legislatures started passing anti-bias bills in the very states where they taught. I heard stories about Kindergarten teachers being afraid to teach about Ruby Bridges. The 1619 Project, which just received praise, was suddenly being demonized and banned. And before we could blink again, 15 states had proposed these bills. Today, there are at least 27. The Zinn Education Project – coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, and Black Lives Matter at School – began to quickly assemble to fight back as it became apparent that these attacks were just getting started.
When you take a closer look at each of the bills, you see penalties that include monetary fines on teachers (Arizona) and reductions in district funding (Iowa). The following language also bans any kind of civic education or student organizing, which is vital for all citizens to be critical participants of an emerging democracy:
“A school district, charter school or state agency may not allow a teacher or employee to require or make part of a course student work for or in affiliation with or service learning that involves the student being engaged in lobbying for legislation at the local, state or federal level or in social or public policy advocacy.” (Arizona SB 1532)
“The bill requires reductions to the authorized budget of and state aid payments to a school district that violates the prohibition on the use of prohibited curriculum.” (Iowa HF 222)
The fear of students becoming critical voters and challenging the status quo is at the heart of this battle. And we have been here before. Fear fueled the violent response to Reconstruction. Fear fueled the response to Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act. Fear fueled the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. And the fear continues to shine a bright light on the racism, transphobia, homophobia, and white supremacy that underlie it.
The strategy for lessening the fear is to teach and encourage American mythologies as opposed to teaching the messy truth about America, which includes but is not limited to removal of Native Americans, enslavement, Indian boarding schools, redlining, the Civil Rights Movement, marriage equality, the 2020 uprisings, Jim Crow 2.0, and all of the violence and joy that overlaps and seeps in between. This is what we are up against: The Truth versus Purposeful Omission, and Difficult Conversations versus Deliberate Avoidance.
Back on November 17, 1967 thousands of students walked out of Philadelphia Public Schools demanding that they be taught Afro-American studies, that more black teachers be hired, and that they end the racism in their schools. Sound familiar? It should, because last summer the uprisings after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were demanding the same. Black people and non-Black allies took to the streets demanding that the police be abolished, that more funding be allocated for mental health services, and that businesses commit to equity and diversity initiatives. We insisted that schools hire more Black teachers and end racist practices, that confederate and other racist statues come down—all while screaming at the top of our lungs, “Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, Black LIves Matter!!”
Just like the students in 1967, a group of educators, parents, and organizers met to plan the Day of Action in Philly, in response to the call by the Zinn Education Project. We selected a space near The President’s House because of its rich history about the enslaved that lived there, and the struggle by a local Philly attorney, Michael Coard, who made sure that their story was actually told. About 100 people came on June 12th at 12:30 PM to share their pledge to teach the truth to their students. We were a part of a National Day of Action with events small and large all over the country. Many organizers who signed up admitted this was their first time organizing something like this: the death of George Floyd last summer and these bills thrust them into action.
Testifying to the power of truth
At the Philadelphia event, students spoke about why history is important and why they want their teachers to be able to teach with no hindrances. Parents shared poetry and words on the value of authentic education for their children. “Learn the truth, teach the truth,” said Shakeda Gaines, President of Philadelphia Home and School Council.
“Our dreams have been taken away, our history has been erased,” said City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, a candidate of the Working Families Party, who continues to create bills to make Philadelphia better for our children and our families. But Dr. Dana King, an educator, historian and attorney, stated it best: “Truth is supposed to be empowering.”
The power of speaking the truth in the center of People’s Plaza – where the First Amendment is written alongside the Liberty Bell – was further lifted by the words and music of spoken word artists, a drummer, and a singer. With the lyrics, “I am an Endangered Species. But I sing no victim song. I am a woman. I am an artist, I know where my voice belongs,” Dianne Reeves reminded both the crowds visiting the historic spots and those who came to witness that we are committed to “Tell Truth…No more Lies! Tell Truth…No more Lies!”
We ask all educators to sign the pledge to #TeachTruth and to mobilize in their cities, school districts, and states for our weekend of action coming up August 27-29. Organize a teach-in about a historical site that you will no longer be able to teach if this madness continues. Take your camera phone on a walking tour of former Indigenous land or a historic Black community that is no longer there and acknowledge the erasure. Invite local poets and artists to share words and music that demonstrate the richness of the blues, protest music, spoken word, and jazz, which can no longer be shared with our students as these bills and penalties are enforced. Travel any spot on the Harriet Tubman Byway in Maryland and Delaware and listen to the stories of resistance.
On October 14, George Floyd’s birthday, Black Lives Matter at School encourages all teachers to #TeachTruth by practicing civil disobedience and teaching a decolonized lesson to liberate all our students. We will re-live the words and mission of Septima Clark: “I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.” Only then maybe we can stop screaming, Black LIves Matter, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter!
Has America achieved democracy and liberation for all its people? The answer continues to be a resounding “no.” At the Philly Day of Action, Dr. Edwin Mayorga, Associate Professor and Co-chair of Latin American and Latino Studies at Swarthmore College, eloquently stated, “We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.” Each time America gets closer to achieving equity, the pushback machine is ready and waiting in the dark to keep the power and privilege exactly where it is, in the hands of the few. And each time, grassroot efforts are mounted to fight back, kick, scream, yell and simply say, “no more.”
Public education is a reflection of this push-and-pull existence. It is apparent in the curriculum, the textbooks, the teacher training programs, and school funding, and now even more limitations are being developed in these “anti-isolating, anti-CRT, anti-1619” bills. The very presence of these bills contradicts their purpose, which is to make schools apolitical, because they thrust the classroom back to the center of the political fight. It is apparent in my own classes that I teach, when my students are literally astounded that they have never been taught something, when I challenge them to look at the patterns, cycles, and lessons from authentic histories and anthropology. When they finally see the truth for themselves. Because, let’s face it, bell hooks had it right, “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.”