An Educator's Role in the Movement
Educators invariably shoulder immense responsibility: but even more so right now.
When we teach about our past, we share historical illumination with our students. It is incumbent upon us to provide the full story at an age-appropriate level. Modifying the narrative, whether to suit one's needs or to soothe one's soul, is not an option.
Yes, George Washington was our first president and is known as "the father of our country." He was a proud Virginian, a slave owner, and approved plans for the President's House, to be built in the new capital of Washington D.C. Skilled and unskilled laborers were remunerated for their contributions, including clearing the land, making and laying bricks, cutting stone, and carpentry work. Enslaved workers also labored to create the White House, and their owners received payment for their slaves' work.
Share factual accounts, rather than those we wish were true or even a legend we heard when we were younger. If the truth is uncomfortable, ask students guiding questions to help them think critically. Set the stage by providing background information and comparisons to contemporary issues. Teach students how to analyze, scrutinize, contextualize, and perhaps to realize.
And what to do with looming figures of Confederate generals and visual reminders of entrenched oppression of African-Americans? Many statues already have been destroyed, perhaps with the intent that the figures and their actions will become a forgotten history. But I propose an urgent alternative: to secure the sculptures and plaques, even with their objectionable implications. Place them in appropriate locations so we will know they were erected and once revered by disciples.
What was happening in America when statues of Robert E. Lee were erected in parks and cities? What was the climate of our culture when we honored Stonewall Jackson by naming children's schools in his honor? And Washington D.C.'s Emancipation Memorial, which was funded mostly by formerly enslaved African-Americans in the 1870s...why was it designed as it now stands? Who made each of these decisions, and why? What has taken place in our recent past and in contemporary times to bring us to this watershed?
Fellow educators, don't tell students why these actions took place, that using enslaved labor was typical of the time period, or that the United Daughters of the Confederacy were reshaping the story of their ancestors. Rather, provide them with historical images, teach them to analyze primary documents, and to discuss and debate with peers. When students have agency over their evaluation and synthesis of this information, when they can reflect on their experiences and understandings, the process and product will be more meaningful for them.
By preserving the artifacts that anger and try to oppress, we preserve our complete story. It's not unblemished and it doesn't always instill pride, yet we must be compelled to remember. Let's gather and record the stories of the statues. Learn about the "why" so we can clearly declare "why not." The entire story has to be shared for us to learn from the narrative.