“I am disturbed, I am uneasy about men because we have no guarantee that when we train a man’s mind, we will train his heart; no guarantee that when we increase a man’s knowledge, we will increase his goodness. There is no necessary correlation between knowledge and goodness.” ~Benjamin E. Mays
My good friend SueZette (love her) and I came to realization that there are two topics that are too taboo in America, race and weight. She tackled weight so eloquently in her most recent blog. (Check it out: http://blogs.centrictv.com/lifestyle/culturelist/weighing-the-options-my-decision-to-have-gastric-bypass-surgery/#more-19807) And I, my friends, will engage in a little philosophical discussion on race. I must point out the irony of having this discussion is that this great country has such a colorful history with regards to race. Yet, our ability to discuss the topic of race with the necessary candor and deserved openness is virtually non-existent. So, please allow me to open this box of Pandora and give you a little food for thought.
The wise words of Benjamin Elijah Mays have been saturating my thoughts as of late. Especially with the news headlines being so focused on race – the impending presidential election of 2012, the news coverage of the republican primaries (Newt Gingrich’s willingness to go before the NAACP to explain to Blacks that they shouldn’t be so eager to accept government assistance), the great recession (nobody admits exists), the disclosure of a government sponsored eugenics sterilization program in North Carolina that spans the more than half a century up to and including my lifetime, and the Pièce de résistance the…uhm…less than professional yet hopefully more ignorant than what met the eye on the date of their hire teachers who gave students in a suburban Atlanta school a math worksheet that used references to slavery in word problems. I am inclined to believe they committed this atrocity (faux pas would be a gross improvement) as some sick and twisted joke, of sorts. Perhaps they yearned to see if the parents of these students would notice that they sent this obviously bigoted assignment home to be completed.
Living in Southern Alabama, I am confronted (more often than I would like to be) with twilight zone moments. Moments where I am left to ponder whether or not some action or comment just “crossed the proverbial line.” The latest of these incidents would be the approaching Civil War Day in my daughter’s 4th grade Alabama History class. While this was the most recent, it is certainly not the worst. I will reserve those happenings for another blog sometime in the near future. I digress… Back to those so called educators in Georgia… What baffles me most about the slavery word problems fiasco is the fact that there was some instruction that led up to this pivotal moment. The tragedy here is that the very inherent prejudice and insensitivity that those teachers conveyed when crafting, ever so recklessly, those worksheets to “teach” third graders about enslaved people in America, is SO pervasive in this land where our slave-owning fore-fathers declared that all men were created equal. (I am still puzzled as to how problem solving questions about how many beatings a slave received or how much cotton a slave picked constitutes teaching the history of slavery!) Schools are where our children become surveyors and purveyors of our historical blunders. We learn history through a myopic, western-centered, ethnocentric lens. Yet, America has evolved, and so should its teaching. In the words of the late great Mark Twain, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” We should not allow what we were taught impact what we expose our children to. My fourth grade daughter’s Alabama History book is the same text that my husband learned from more than 20 years ago. Have we not gained more understanding about the history of the great sovereign state of Alabama since then?
There is a certain sensitivity (one that is absent from virtually all of the textbooks and teaching materials that I have perused over the years) that should be applied when our children are introduced to such topics as the enslavement of Africans in America, the Holocaust, the Japanese Internment Camps, and the like. I most recently noticed a lack of such sensitivity when browsing the lesson plans of a 4th grade teacher at my daughter’s school. The students were to “write about the unique features of the stars and bars.” While there may be some historical relevance to knowing the history behind the confederate flag, this exercise lacks the sensitivity required when teaching about such a fragile part of our history. The rebel flag serves as a historical reminder of the callousness of slavery in the South. Although it is a display of love for Southern heritage to some who choose to ignore its brutal history, for others it is offensive. To refer to the Confederate flag with such affection is, at best, insensitive to some students. Scheduling a “Civil War Day Celebration” during Black History Month, no matter how well intentioned (is that possible to have a good intention here?), is abysmally insensitive. Please do not misunderstand me; I am not advocating that we merely not teach these parts of our history. What I am suggesting is that we use the slave worksheet folly as an opportunity to think critically about how we approach delicate historical topics within our schools – tell the ENTIRE story and the lessons we, as a nation and human race, have or at least should have learned.
Dr. Mays’ words remind us knowledge does not beget goodness. And, I have accepted that sometimes those who know the most do the worst. The very premise of capitalism rewards those who best take advantage of those who do not have the knowledge or the resources to make use of it. It is in one’s financial best interest to prey on the vulnerable. The travesty in the slavery worksheet incident is that those public servants (namely teachers and silent parents, but you can add to this list as you wish…you have my permissionJ) have a duty of affirmative action to protect the sanctity and innocence of the classroom – to not be purveyors of prejudice. When someone makes a racially insensitive comment in your presence do you suddenly become deaf and ignore it? Or, do you correct them immediately? When your child is the victim of some insensitive instruction do you schedule a conference with the teacher? Or do you save face for sake of your child’s grade? Remember, things only change when we ALL make a commitment to become change agents. Brood over your backpack of privilege. Examine which privileges you benefit from and examine the implications of having been their beneficiary.
As I muse about this incident, I find it intractable not to succumb to the same nihilism as Mays. Like Mays, I have come to know that there is NO correlation between knowledge and goodness. Knowing and accepting this carries me both slowly and gently out of the clutches of the twilight zone. Nevertheless, I continue to hold those who serve as curators of my three girls’ young minds to a higher standard. Our future depends on it! It is my sincere hope that you will also do the same. These teachers in Georgia and those responsible for the distribution of those worksheets should be held accountable for their actions!!!
On the brink of the King Holiday (you ARE a bigot if you don’t know which holiday to which I am referring), I encourage you to openly discuss race with a friend or co-worker that is of another race for it is only through open communication that we can dispel the veil of ignorance and move forward on the path to social justice.