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  • Nicole Doyley

Five Things to Ask Your Child’s Teacher

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Even while controversy over CRT broils in various districts across the nation, and some schools have even begun teaching that there were benefits to slavery, other schools are adopting some version of an anti-racist curriculum. They are trying to teach a more honest history, which both extolls the virtues of America and soberly reveals the gravity of her sins. Teachers are also trying to be more inclusive in the books they teach and choose for their classroom bookshelves; they want to include more brown faces in the lineup of history makers.

Even still, some of these efforts are progressing at a turtle’s pace. New curricula can take years to adopt, but that doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t try to do what they can, today, to teach kids about a diverse array of people.

As we embark on a new school year, here are five things to ask your child’s teacher to help nudge this process forward and to remind him or her that this stuff matters.

1. Will my child learn about Africa before he or she learns about slavery? Black people existed before Europeans exploited them. Will kids learn about the wealth and sophistication of the Kingdom of Kush and the Mali and Songha Empires? In the 16th century, Songha was one of the most powerful states in the world. Will they know the wealth, influence, and sophistication of Zimbabwe? Before slavery, Black people had a world, a life with triumphs and failures, just like everyone else. It is important for kids not to associate Black with trauma.

Similarly, when learning about European history, will they learn that North Africans ushered Europe out from the dark ages into the Renaissance? During their 800 year rule in Spain, Moors brought universal education, libraries and universities. Where 99% of the rest of Europe, including its kings, were illiterate, most of Spain could read. These Africans made significant contributions in chemistry, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and physics. Because of them, Europeans learned about bathing, changing their clothes and using sewage systems. In other words, the belief that Europe civilized the rest of the world is false.

2. How many books by Black authors will my child read and how many picture books with Black and brown characters will the teacher read to the class? Psychologist Dr. Beverly Tatum tells a story about a white college student commenting, “It’s not my fault that Blacks don’t write books.”[1] In his entire school career, this man had been exposed to not one of the innumerable award-winning books penned by a Black author. Your child should read many of these books during his or her K-12 years. These books should include triumph as well as tragedy, and Black life that stretches beyond inner-city life. Inner-city life is a slice of the Black experience; it is not the whole pie.

3. How many remarkable people of color will be discussed throughout the year? I look forward to the day when we no longer need Black History Month because the contributions of Black people are taught throughout the year, and teachers can begin that process now. For example, when talking about early American agriculture, teachers can include George Washington Carver. When discussing the industrial era, they can talk about Lewis Latimer, and when learning about WWII, students can watch or read The Tuskegee Airmen. And of course there are thousands of others. Kids will subliminally realize that of course Black and brown people did great things. Excellent people of color existed in every era, and they are everywhere.

4. How will American slavery be taught? I understand that teachers need to be age appropriate and shouldn’t discuss rape on slave plantations with a bunch of 4th graders! But they can certainly talk about it and other grim realities in high school. Fourth graders can learn that slavery was cruel and unjust. They should be able to reason, “If slavery wasn’t so bad,” as some have suggested, “why would so many enslaved people try to escape with only the clothes on their backs knowing that they would be maimed or killed if they were caught? Why would Harriet Tubman risk her life returning to the South so many times to help friends, family, and strangers to escape?” By the time your child graduates from high school, there should be nothing in him or her that thinks slavery was a necessary evil. It was only evil.

5. What will be taught about the Civil War and post- Civil War years? Will kids read primary documents like Mississippi's Articles of Secession which reveal that the stubborn resolve to retain slavery was THE primary reason for the Confederacy? The Articles of Texas and Georgia and other southern states also make it clear that the war was primarily about slavery, not simply state's rights.

Then, after the War, will kids learn about the reneged promise of forty acres and a mule? Will they learn about the terror that swept the South and the realities of Jim Crow? Will they learn about the great migration and northern ghettos, the exorbitant rents charged for tenement dwellings and the inhumane working conditions of Black workers who were grossly underpaid? Will they learn that Black people were legally and systematically shut out of opportunities that were afforded to all white Americans, including the Irish, Italians and Jews who were initially discriminated against? Will they understand the gravity of the fact that Black men were not allowed to join labor unions and therefore could not take part in the collective bargaining which helped white men rise from working to middle class? And will they learn that despite that, Black people have excelled in every arena so that today, the majority of Black people have left poverty behind?

I am not at all suggesting a combative attitude with teachers. Teachers are smart, generous, professionals, many of whom could make more money with fewer headaches somewhere else, but they choose to teach our kids. I am grateful for them. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t suggest, remind, and respectfully challenge them to make sure that the kids in their classrooms know that Black people most certainly do write books.

*** If you'd like to go with some suggestions on hand, here's a list of resources, many of which are children's books.

[1] Tatum, Dr. Berverly. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Basic Books, New York. 2017. Pg. 85.



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