As a history teacher, there are times when the past reasserts itself with such force that you have to put aside your plans and address the moment. Charlottesville is one of those times. The image of white supremacists openly marching in defense of a Confederate general, viciously beating and murdering those who are protesting their racism – is an image we hoped had died with Jim Crow. That this image is not a relic of the past is a reality that teachers and students must face as they return to the classroom in the coming weeks.
In his defense of the white supremacists marching against the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee, Donald Trump pointed out that George Washington owned people and asked, “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
Many responded to this question by pointing out that unlike Lee, Washington and Jefferson were not best known for their defense of slavery. But The Onion cut to the heart of the President’s position with its headline: “Trump Warns Removing Confederate Statues Could Be a Slippery Slope To Eliminating Racism Entirely”. And activists have been making it clear that they hope this moment won’t end with the removal of Confederate monuments. In the wake of Charlottesville, former Rethinking Schools editor and current Philadelphia city councilwoman Helen Gym has called for the removal of the statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo, known for terrorizing Black and gay communities. In New York City, protesters have demanded the removal of a Central Park statue of Dr J Marion Sims, who experimented on enslaved women in the 19th century.
Weighing in on this debate, historian Eric Foner writes, “Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power – an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places”. In that case, what better way to empower students and teachers in schools across the country, than by actively taking part in the debate over whether symbols of white supremacy should be taken down – whether a statue at a nearby park, a classroom poster, a hallway mural, or even a school name. In fact, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 109 public schools, a quarter of which have student bodies that are primarily Black, are named after Confederate icons. In addition to efforts aimed at challenging symbols that represent racism, an equally powerful activity could be discussing, and ultimately taking action around, what names, pictures, and monuments would more accurately reflect the values of your school community.
But eventually, we need to move beyond discussions about tearing down symbols of white supremacy, and begin to strategize about how to tear down the systems that still prop it up. In response to Trump’s query, educator and activist Brian Jones writes, “Where does it stop? Let’s answer him: it goes all the way to the beginning. If we’re serious about uprooting racism and racist violence, we have to write a new American history for every student in every classroom, for every monument and museum.”
If you doubt the need for such a drastic re-claiming of history, you need to look no further than the textbooks adopted by the state of Virginia, where this recent racist violence took place.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Taking the Fight Against White Supremacy Into Schools’.