A Way to Understand American History

An original version posted on 3/10/2010 as "Time Is Right For New Social Studies Education after LAUSD Incident" @ Examiner.com

Three teachers at Wadsworth Elementary school in South Los Angeles were suspended for allegedly having students carry pictures of troubled former football player OJ Simpson, basketball player Dennis Rodman, and female impersonator RuPaul during a Black history month parade.

The Black history month parade is an annual event. Each class chose figures from the school-approved list, which dates back to 1985. While OJ Simpson was already on the list, Dennis Rodman, and Rupaul were allegedly written in via pencil.

First, second, and fourth grade students carried pictures of these controversial figures during the parade.

Despite having a remarkable college and professional football career, OJ Simpson has had numerous brushes with the law. He is currently serving time after being convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping in 2008.

Dennis Rodman, a former professional basketball player had been a public icon in the 1990s. Since his career officially ended in 2005, he has made appearances on celebrity shows and has had minor skirmishes with the law.

RuPaul has been a big hit within the entertainment industry as an actor, musician, and filmmaker. He has made numerous guest appearances on television, movies, and print media, and currently hosts the reality television show RuPaul's Drag Race. While he himself has had little public controversy, his entertainment personality is associated with lesbian, gay, and transgendered issues, which in the context of marriage has drawn national controversy.

The suspended teachers, who are white, have not been identified.

The controversy came in a Black History month that saw furious public debates over racism at UCSD and many other college campuses. Click here to read "Public debate over racism erupts after student theme party". Also, click here to read "Recapping the aftermath of Compton Cookout and sugggestions for change"

Perspective: Little sympathy for the teachers

The fact that someone, likely the three adult teachers would write in RuPaul and Dennis Rodman shows more than a conscious effort to make some sort of statement.

Making such a statement by using such an impressionable population as a vehicle to this message in an already tense climate where 5,200 LAUSD jobs are on the line, they should have fully anticipated the consequences. Click here to read "California's Public Education in Peril"

Sorry, no sympathy for those teachers here.

"Teaching is the art of changing the brain" says Biologist James Zull.

If these were true educators as opposed to the currently-employed hacks they appear to be, the focus would have been built on getting children to understand why or why not a Black history month is needed.

Based on the boldness of the statement they made, it doesn't appear that they have had that dialogue. They instead taught disrespect for peoples' cultures and traditions.

Their actions make you wonder what they've been telling these children all along and what other political views have bled over into their work.

We need to perceive of American history as a "family album"

I think if those teachers were grounded in a more critical understanding of history, I would be comfortable with them teaching again. If the Compton Cookout invitation writer was grounded in a more critical understanding of history, he wouldn't have so ignorantly tied Black history month with the ghetto culture.

History is not one big cluster of rote indisputable facts, names, and dates.

If I can make a metaphor about history in general, it is this: history is a series of pictures and albums strung together to make a coherent storyline to determine present and future courses of action.

Pictures and albums aren't meant to capture every angle. Sometimes they're blurry, sometimes they're clear. Sometimes the pictures are very representative of a person, sometimes they aren't.

Pictures capture points in history and are endlessly interpreted and judged, regardless of the original intent or focus of the photographer.

We say that in this age of Obama we want to look past race and have it be of minimal consequence. If we want to minimize that difference, the histories we tell students need to integrate people of color.

If we are to minimize the importance of ethnic or racial history months, like Black History month or Asian Pacific History month, we need to look at American history the same way we look at a family album.

Family members who are missing or are otherwise given scant attention in the album feel excluded and less likely to participate in family activities.

The "family album" works best if we equally represent all members of the American family.

Black Americans, many whose ancestors have been in the United States longer than many other Americans only have representatives in the metaphorical album involved in rebuffing slavery and asserting civil rights. It is as if civil rights was the only issue they were interested in.

In the American family album, we already have many landscape photos of people of color, not just black people, as if they are one monolithic entity.

For example, the average 4th grade social studies textbook about California will talk about the great Indian tribes. We only get a landscape picture of them.

We learn that the Chumash were expert canoe builders and had their own system of government. We do not get any sense however that there were any great Chumash individuals who initiated anything of significance. We do not learn of individuals with strong characteristics and traits.

These metaphorical landscape photos contrast sharply to the detailed protraits of white American individuals. In schools, museums, popular culture, we will get plenty of metaphorical and figurative photos of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington --- their mythical characteristics and traits, and most importantly achievements illustrated through popular fables.

With a focus on individual characteristics, we perceive of these individuals having made a difference for everyone. Because they made such a widespread difference, they can rightfully occupy the same place in history as entire groups of people. This feeds the social perception that white Americans do things that make a difference for everyone and are still the driving force behind any kind of decisionmaking.

Yes, school teachers will say a little something about Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, but they get painted as people merely responding to their own social problems. They are not perceived to have these mythic personalities, lacking illustrative stories and fables that could relate to people outside of the black community.

Not learning that individuals of color can take on mythic personalities as well fosters a widespread social perception that people of color act only in accordance with their racial or ethnic groups. As a result, many white Americans assume that people of color have allegiance first and foremost to their racial or ethnic group. From this point, everything they do can be perceived as responding to problems within their own little groups.

Black history month, like other ethnic history and heritage months are an attempt to show that black Americans have interests other than civil rights, and innovations. They should be celbrated because they are likely not going to be any other time.

The idea of Black history month comes from a history of segregation and discrimination which omitted the role of blacks in influencing American culture. Celebrating the month and people in it is celebrating of people overcoming a struggle.

To place less importance on Black history month or other ethnic history months, we need to make a firm commitment towards a "family album history."

The family album history should attempt to reveal a sense of interaction or trading of influence within the different demographics of American history. It isn't a story of extraordinary individuals, presidents, political figures, but a story of networks of individuals, mere human beings wielding their power through their connections with other people as they saw fit.

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