Opinion: My family went from being enslaved to serving in the White House. You can’t erase our history.
6/4/2021 | John B. King
The Washington Post
John B. King Jr. is an educator, former U.S. education secretary and Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland.
I live in Montgomery County, Md. — about 25 miles from where my great-grandfather was enslaved. The cabin where he and his family lived still stands on the property owned by direct-line descendants of the family who “owned” my family. In just three generations, my family went from being enslaved in that cabin to serving in the Cabinet of the nation’s first Black president. The United States is full of stories like this, reminders that the inhumane institution of slavery existed not that long ago with echoes that persist today — and also that progress is possible.
As a former high school social studies teacher, I know that learning American history requires students to see both the ways we have fallen short of our democratic aspirations and the progress — uneven though it may be — we continue to make toward a more just society. Yet legislatures in some states want to erase my family’s story under a misguided call to ban critical race theory — a body of academic legal scholarship that highlights how systems oppress people of color — to take away educators’ ability to acknowledge the hard parts of our nation’s history and students’ right to learn about them. This is all part of a calculated ploy to draw America’s classrooms into “culture wars” for political advantage and fearmongering.
We cannot afford to continue to sanitize history to bury generations of shameful truths. Like some members of Congress who pretend the Jan. 6 Capitol riot didn’t occur, some states are passing laws to encourage false narratives that obscure the painful reality of Indigenous people being deprived of their land, of slavery and Jim Crow, of the internment of U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent, and even of the resistance faced by the civil rights movement. These laws will leave teachers feeling scared and under attack — and, most detrimentally, they will leave our students less prepared as citizens to grapple with the challenges of our time.
When young people of color see themselves represented in affirming curricula, they see what’s possible for their own lives. It wasn’t until I read Puerto Rican Afro-Latino author Piri Thomas and Black author Claude Brown that I saw my experiences in a way that still shapes my identity and consciousness. People of color benefit from these texts, but White students benefit, too: Exposure to diverse learning experiences prepares them to engage in post-secondary education and workplaces in an increasingly diverse society. What’s more, refusing to contain the whole of our American story puts our educator workforce at risk. We will lose teachers who are passionate about studying history with integrity, those who see diversity as a strength — and teachers of color.
As we marked Memorial Day (when we honor those who died in service of the best of what we hope to be) and 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre(a painful reflection of some of the worst elements of what we have been), I thought a lot about my Uncle Hal. He grew up in a segregated New York City, then went to an even more segregated Alabama during World War II for flight training. He was a a Tuskegee Airmen, one of the first Black pilots in the U.S. military. My uncle and the other Tuskegee Airmen faced bigotry and hostility, but they put their lives on the line for a country that still regularly denied Black people equal rights. When he came home, Uncle Hal became a firefighter and then was recalled into the Air Force during the Korean War, again repeatedly risking his life for countrymen who didn’t always see his humanity. After retiring from the military, he would proudly put his American flag out every day, and he chose to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery upon his death.
Uncle Hal represents the foundation of our democracy. Acknowledging the slavery our family endured and the discrimination my uncle overcame doesn’t diminish his patriotism, or mine. In fact, true patriotism requires naming where we have fallen short and recognizing how far we have to go in the pursuit of freedom.
America is a complicated and still-evolving narrative. Systemic racism is real. Acknowledging this fact doesn’t negate the beauty of the Declaration of Independence, the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, or the American promise of equality and opportunity.
Like many Black Americans, I am tired of lip service being paid to our pain while there is so little investment in our progress. Soon, our country must stop just reckoning and take meaningful action to right its wrongs, but recognizing our pain in the first place is a good place to start. No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase my family’s history.