As the only student of color in my entire elementary school class, I would always dread when the time arrived for our perfunctory lessons on ancient civilizations and the American civil war. Discussions of ancient civilizations would inevitably review the geography of the African continent, including the river Niger. And as if on cue, some dim-witted child reading aloud his or her assigned paragraph would trip over the name, attributing the word a short “i” rather than the appropriate long “i” sound, and almost pronounce it “nigger”, before they caught themselves, their face turning bright red (you would have thought the apocalypse was near the day they realized my face could do the same) and stare pleadingly at the teacher for assistance. During this heroic struggle, I could feel the other 23 pair of eyes staring in my direction, as I kept my head between the pages of the heavy textbook, praying for it all to be over. In a save Stanley Cup worthy, the teacher would interject the correct pronunciation before promptly moving on.
The American Civil war was a whole other ball game. Rather than one uncomfortable day, it was only befitting to devote six weeks to the war that ravaged our country and pitted brother against brother and slave against the master. So for six long weeks, I would avoid the staring blue and green eyes boring into my skin, as I focused my gaze down to read or write in my notebook, or straight ahead at my teacher as he/she recounted the unfortunate atrocities visited upon African slaves and their descendants in America, always with a stern admonishment that this was one of the darkest periods of our American history.
In sixth grade, it got worse. My teacher elected to show the class the Civil War mini-series The Blue and Gray. Most of the class was excited because this six and a half hour mini-series spread throughout a 45-minute class equaled almost two weeks of watching TV! Before pressing play, my teacher got up from her seat and stood in front of the blackened screen.
“Class” she began “this movie was made to show the attitudes of Americans in the North and South during the Civil War. At that time in our country’s history, many people living in the South, those who owned slaves and those who did not, believed that slaves were inferior, they were property and considered only ¾ a man. You will hear the word “nigger” used throughout the movie. While it will be very uncomfortable to hear this word, you must remember that this movie depicts a time in the past, and language and attitudes that are no longer acceptable today.”
Great, I thought. It wasn’t enough that the word almost spilled out of some kid’s mouth last month! After the second day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I kept a mental tally on the number of times derogatory names were used to describe southern blacks. The uncomfortable, embarrassed stares slowed down halfway through that second day of viewing as these words were used as casually back then as we used the words “cool” or “awesome”. That’s when I got scared. What if people in my class started using those words? “Get in line, darky!” or “Look at the coon’s new shoes.”
And my fear was not too far-fetched. Over the years, in fits of anger, some of our classmates did indeed call my brothers and me niggers. In high school, another peer in my homeroom even had the audacity to get mad at me for being upset when I heard him use the word nigger and angrily tried to school me as to the real meaning of the word: an ignorant person of any race. All this, in addition to constant microaggressions.
I am not implying that expanded and nuanced black history lessons will stop racism in its tracks, but if we are serious about addressing and dismantling systematic disenfranchisement and racism, it is imperative that we re-tool education. To be clear, schools are not simply reading, writing, and arithmetic training grounds, they are also tools for cultural and national indoctrination. The fact that the history of American Indians–the sovereign inhabitants of this land– and African Americans–whose labor built this country– can be distilled into a few paragraphs in most history textbooks directly correlates to why white men in 2017 can ignorantly, yet assertively, chant “You will not replace US!” No progress can be made without a commitment to frank and multifaceted dialogue about US history which must be necessarily uncomfortable for all children, and not simply children of color.
Shanna K Houser Contributor