Who We Are and Where We Come From is a Complicated History.
My child's class recently was assigned homework that asked culturally intrusive questions about where our family came from prior to them "moving" to America. There were questions such as, "Why did they “move” to America?", "Do we have anything in our homes that comes from that country?" and "List any recipes that come from that region." Being a black mother raising black children, I was not surprised but deeply concerned about why this was assigned to 8-year-old second graders. I learned that this is part of the Tennessee States Studies curriculum.
Although she knows some of the stories and has read books, as she was processing this, she felt overwhelmed and asked if she could simply write, "I don't know," just as her teacher told her class to do if they didn't know any of the answers. Watching my daughter go through her emotions broke my heart, and in that moment, I knew I had to find a way to empower and encourage her to speak truth to power. With the knowledge that I knew to be true, I answered those questions unapologetically in a way that made it a teachable moment not just to the students, but for the teacher. I had my daughter practice reading it to me over and over again, until she felt comfortable and also built confidence and pride knowing she never has to be ashamed of our history and how we came to be.
This assignment did exactly what it meant to do. It disproportionately created a sense of inferiority amongst children and parents of black and brown descent and, if not narrated through the lens of empowerment, can miseducate our children into believing false narratives of our complicated history.
This teacher was not equipped to educate from that experience, so I requested a meeting with her. She thanked me for the history lesson and acknowledged that she sees how this could perpetuate what I explained and that she should not have assigned it. Compared to some of the horrific stories I’ve heard in other places around the country, our meeting went okay, but I know that we have to continue to speak out against the whitewashing of history in our schools and that it can not stop with just a meeting with the teacher.
As a 20-year retired Navy veteran, I am no stranger to adversity. I’ve faced racism, sexism, reproductive rights issues, and many other complicated issues throughout my years of service. A little after I retired from active duty, I learned about a nonprofit organization called Common Defense while listening to my favorite satellite radio station SirusXm channel 126. On the Lurie Daniel-Favors show, she featured a couple of organizers from Common Defense. Immediately, I applied for the Veteran Organizing Institute (VOI) and received a call a week later for a training opportunity in Georgia. I accepted and was there 2 weeks later and I am so glad I took that chance. It enabled me to reclaim my military service through a hidden history of military service members who paved the way in the social and political justice movements, such as Medgar Evers, Harry Belafonte, Harriet Tubman, and other patron saints, by empowering me to use my voice, as a veteran, in this particular case, to call out the unjust rewriting of history that goes against our country’s best interest and our students, to include my own daughter’s.
Tennessee is deciding whether to reject $1.8 billion in federal funding that makes up around 20% of the state's education funding in an effort to avoid having to comply with the mandates tied to federal funding. If they do this, Tennessee will be the first state to do this. As a Tennessee resident, it is clear to me that Republican lawmakers want to continue to use their power to oppress people's rights to thrive by abolishing anti-discrimination efforts, further disenfranchising low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities, and it would be yet another embrace of their shift toward white nationalism and fascism. This is a very dangerous direction we are going for our children, for our parents, and for our communities as a whole because when the black community suffers, one thing to be true is ALL communities suffer.
It is important to speak and teach the Truth to our children so that we are able to defeat fascist rhetoric and shift the mindset into treating people, all people, as human beings. We must teach our children that ALL of us have the basic human right to dignity.
When teachers lack expertise or experiences in the different cultures of their students, they must be provided the resources they need from someone who is equipped to empower students respectively—and they should be free to do so without judgment or jeopardizing their job.
It is critically important for parents in Tennessee and around the country to know and understand what is happening in our state’s education system and to be actively involved in the decisions our lawmakers are making about our children’s schools. Today, as the Tennessee legislative session begins, our lawmakers need to hear from parents across the state to let them know we want them to accept federal funding for our schools and embrace the civil rights protections and the benefits that come with it.
It is also important to educate the community on why voting matters not only nationally but locally. Your voice matters.