As a white woman teacher who has taught mostly Black and brown students in Philadelphia for 20 years, I know I would be committing educational malpractice if I did not teach the complete history of this nation to my students. As we approach the 4th of July and 245th birthday of this nation, it is only right to acknowledge that by the same year the Declaration of Independence was read in Independence Square, all 13 colonies had legalized slavery. By 1780, Pennsylvania had abolished slavery, but that did not keep our first president from ferrying the people he enslaved in and out of Philadelphia to deny their freedom. It is imperative that teachers, parents, and communities commit to teaching the true history of this nation, acknowledging both its hopeful and oppressive parts.
Seventy-six years after that first Independence Day, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass realized this profound disconnect between reality and the celebratory mythology of July 4th when he said, addressing white fellow Americans: “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”
We still struggle with the unequal application of these freedoms today.
Now laws are being passed in many states to silence the crucial examination of all aspects of our history, scapegoating an academic movement called critical race theory. CRT’s founding scholars define CRT as “a theoretical and analytical framework that challenges the ways race and racism impact educational structures, practices, and discourses. …” These very challenges enhance our understanding and help us and our students create a path toward freedom for all.
Philadelphians live in the midst of places where the myth of America was created, erasing crucial people, events, and practices. Acknowledging and deconstructing the stories we are told about our country’s founding strengthens us. As a teacher, I see this not as tearing down but building up a complete understanding — discerning between proclaiming ideals and working to enact them. The scholar bell hooks noted, ”The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” It is our sacred duty as educators to realize this possibility.
It is increasingly important that all students reckon with the complete story of our founding, including who was left out of America’s earliest democracy, and its reverberations across generations. As James Baldwin said in a 1979 interview ABC tried to bury: “[White people] don’t know what the Black face hides. They’re sure it’s hiding something. What it’s hiding is American history. What it’s hiding is what white people know they have done.”
If the anti-critical race theory and anti-truth forces have their way, many Americans — particularly my fellow white people — will not know what historically has been done in our name, and we will be denied the opportunity to acknowledge, understand, and repair it.
We do not serve our students well if we deny or whitewash the enslavement of a people, the legal and practical rejection of their humanity, the habitual denial of equal rights and benefits, and the genocidal actions our country committed against the Native peoples of this land. One does not have to fabricate or create a new history to study these realities. We simply have to stop lying or telling half the story.
The primary sources exist. We can read the Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Constitution, the Dred Scott decision, the Articles of Confederation of seceding states, Indian removal orders, Japanese internment policy — our students can study correspondence, laws, and newspapers that illustrate both the laws that codified discrimination and the perspectives that spread and enabled bigotry.
The honest history of this country is not something to be feared. Our true history is something to learn and know and ponder. This real history empowers us to accept our past — and to become better and freer in that acknowledgment. In the words of Baldwin from “A Talk to Teachers”: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
I cannot shut my eyes to reality. I cannot lie to my students. I can and will continue to teach the truth.
Kristin R. Luebbert teaches humanities in a Philadelphia public school and is a member of Philadelphia’s Racial Justice Organizing Committee. firstname.lastname@example.org