|A Reflection On “History Class and the Fictions About Race in America”|
Recently, I was sent an article from The Atlantic titled “History Class and the Fictions About Race in America”. The article was written in response to the recent uproar over a caption in a McGraw Hill text book that stated that the Atlantic Slave Trade, “brought millions of workers from Africa” to the United States during the time period ranging from the 1500s to the 1800s. Essentially, this caption cleanses the reality that the Africans brought in this time period were actually forced slaves, and not “workers”. Acknowledging and discussing this semantic mishap is important because of the connotations that are associated with the word “worker” versus those of “slave”. To refer to the Africans brought on those ships as “workers” as opposed to “slaves” is taking our history and diluting it to make it easier to talk about. Some might think that this sort of cleansing of our language to make difficult topics easier to discuss is a positive thing, that it provides a pathway for the more timid to access the uncomfortable reality of our nation’s history. But to that point I have to say that through this washing we are making it okay for students not to face the truth. One of the responsibilities we have as adults and educators in students’ lives is to tell them the truth, no matter how much that might make them feel uncomfortable or uneasy. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s also necessary. How can we expect students to tell and acknowledge the truth, if we as adults cannot do the same?
Additionally, by softening our language, we are denying ourselves as adults the ability to accept, to process and to teach history. Language is power, the words we choose to use while discussing various topics has an impact on how we choose to form opinions. Thus, language has an important role to play when it comes to history. How is someone supposed to know the true hurt of referring to slaves as “workers” if we have not explicitly discussed the horrors of slavery and the treatment of Africans during that time period? How are we supposed to understand the current state of inequality in our country’s institutions without knowing what “racism” or “discrimination” is? We need to talk about it, and we need to talk about it honestly.
I write this, and I ask these questions as a way to challenge myself and others who work with students to think about the impact of our language. We have a role to play when it comes to the future of social justice dialogue in our country, and it starts with learning and teaching an uncensored history. I know change like this does not happen overnight, but it can never happen if we never start. It can start by simply finding an article to discuss with a small group, and eventually can “ripple” to become a larger conversation. From my experiences with my 6th grade students last year, I know it is possible to start these conversations even with students as young as 11, it is just up to us to try.
Danielle Smalls is serving as Team Leader with City Year Los Angeles. She graduated from Pitzer College majoring in Environmental Analysis. This is her second year with City Year Los Angeles and she plans to teach in California following her service years.