This new Blog cited above I composed for The Center for Mark Twain Studies and have inserted here on my site, as well, because I know this is a topic with which we as ELA , Humanities, and Social Studies educators have wrestled for longer than some of us have been in the classroom. Personally, as a woman of color, an African-American woman of proud ancestors–slave, freemen/women/white, and Native American–I remain ever-curious and proud of the history of African Americans in the United States. Ours is a history we initially did not write, AND ours is a history which we did own and tell–verbally passing them down and then writing them. Some, like my maternal Great-grandmother’s brother who dared to learn to read and write in the secret dark of night, ultimately forfeiting his life. All my Great-grandmother heard, she would later reveal to my Mother, was a scream. She never saw her brother again. She did, however, see her own Father sold in the front yard of their cabin. My maternal Great-grandmother could not write, but she could and did tell her story–what became my story, too. The Chadwicks and the Banks (my paternal side) on the other hand, survived and persevered: the Chadwicks as slaves totally mixed by many strands and threads of difference; the Banks–freeman.
What I continue to love about my family on both sides is their dogged determination that their children, their children’s children, and so on, would indeed know our history–the whole truth: the good, the tragic, the triumphant, the failed. Education was and still is the watchword among us.
I recount this personal narrative because what we cousins learned as we grew was that there was never an ALL of anything. Not ALL Black people are the same; not ALL people different from us were portrayed as VILE and untrustworthy. Difference, Tolerance, Equity, Equality, Ethics–my Father insisted and walked that walk until he died.
What great literature accomplishes, regardless of who writes it, allows our students to experience multifaceted perspectives through their OWN 21st century lenses–assessing, evaluating, analyzing, inquiring according to their here and now–not ours. Students who have memory of their families’ pasts and history and those who do not–the literature we teach is the door through which our students can experience the world–warts and all.
No doubt, the past can inform the present, but our past must never-ever suffocate our children’s “now.” Every classroom I enter–physically or virtually, I am finding the experience with, as some now say,”old” texts and new with these 21st century students daring, refreshing, daunting, and even sad, at times. I describe many of these students as ones with “old eyes,” for they have indeed experienced and seen far more than we want to think about. But think about it, we must.
We have to trust them and trust ourselves as ELA, SS, and Humanities educators. And as a dear friend, Carol Jago said earlier this month, those of us who need help, ASK. There will always be those of us who will say, Of course, we are here.