Black history is American history.
That shouldn’t be a controversial statement. But thanks to politicians like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, teaching honestly about history is getting downright dangerous.
Youngkin got elected in part by embracing a dishonest campaign launched by far-right activists to make parents fear that teaching about racism represents some kind of sinister plot to shame and indoctrinate children.
Once he took office, the very first official action he took as governor was to sign an executive order supposedly designed to “get divisive concepts out of our schools.”
You know what was “inherently divisive?” The Confederacy, which waged a brutal war to defend slavery from its capital in Richmond, Virginia. How about massive resistance to the desegregation of schools? How about Virginia’s law that made interracial marriage illegal until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in 1967?
Youngkin has claimed that his order will still allow students to learn about history—both good and bad. But he also set up a tip line that parents could use to report on “divisive” teachers.
That’s in the worst tradition of authoritarian politicians everywhere.
It’s a terrible policy. It’s a terrible way to think about education.
And, I will admit, I take it a bit personally. My ancestors were enslaved in the state of Virginia. One of my forefathers was elected to the state legislature during Reconstruction. He helped create the state’s system of public education. Then white supremacists took back power, made segregation the law of the land, and made it impossible for Black Virginians to build political power for decades. That’s pretty “divisive” stuff.
A coalition of civil rights groups has launched the Black History is American History campaign to push back on Gov. Youngkin’s efforts to force teachers and schools to whitewash teaching about history and racism. Students have the right to learn the truth about our history and our present.
We are inviting Virginia parents and families to use the governor’s “tip line” to tell Gov. Youngkin that denying students the freedom to learn is bad for children, families, and the future.
Unfortunately, Virginia is far from alone. Politicians and political operatives are out to build power by mobilizing a backlash to honest teaching about racism in our history and institutions. And those efforts are connected to campaigns for so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws, which threaten teachers who acknowledge the reality of LGBTQ students and families.
And all of this goes hand in hand with a surge in censorship in classrooms and libraries. The American Library Association recently released its list of the books most often challenged last year. Most of them were about Black and LGBTQ people. And that reminded me that Gov. Youngkin’s campaign actually ran an ad featuring a woman who objected to the teaching of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” in her son’s senior-year English class.
Watching politicians build power by inflaming fears about Black people can be deeply discouraging. It can also be intensely motivating.
As a Black Christian writing this column during Holy Week, I draw strength from the historic witness of the Black church and its role in supporting and sustaining Black people as we made history. I celebrate the power and impact of Martin Luther King, Jr’s appeal to both the Constitution’s promise of equality under law and the great faith traditions’ call for us to treat one another with decency and respect.
And I lift up the words of Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and now the director of the Smithsonian Institution, who reminds us that “there are few things as powerful and as important as a people, as a nation that is steeped in its history.”
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice in the Africana Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches leadership. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.