After 3 weeks of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and learning at rallies the stories of Breanna Taylor and others, I have been doing some introspection.
My pastor, Carlos Smith, has encouraged us, especially the white members of our congregation, to use our voices to speak out for justice. But to be honest, I always think that doing that from a social media platform is a coward’s move unless you are doing that in your own heart first.
For the last 15 years, I have taught U.S. History to middle school students. This is my biggest “platform.” My classroom is known for having honest and uncomfortable conversations. One of the first things I talk with my students about is legacy and heritage. I challenge them to talk to their parents and family and find out the stories of their family and their people. If you really want to study history, you will be saddened if you are after easy answers. It’s complicated. All of it. Because it is the story of people. And we don’t even know ourselves, much less others. Still less, others who lived before us. I’ve got nothing for you here except what I’ve observed in my life and those closest to me, and I’m sure I’ll get much of it wrong in the telling.
Up front, I need you to understand that my dad is a man who loves God and people. Everything I know about serving and loving people comes from him, by example. I never saw him meet anyone in need (of ANY color or creed) that he didn’t go out of his way to help, serve, share the gospel with, and try to get them to be a Steelers fan. If you’ve met my dad, you know all these things. This was for those of you who may not have.
Over the years, it has become clear to me that my dad’s love for the Civil War sometimes has clouded his better judgement. My dad decided to name me after a Confederate Civil War general. Dad did this because of this general’s reputation as the best soldier in the war, who rose from private to general with no previous military training. What I never knew until high school was that this general was also a prolific slave trader who massacred hundreds of black POWs on one occasion and was involved with the KKK. Forrest Gump wasn’t wrong when he said that sometimes people do things that just don’t make sense. Maybe naming me after a Confederate general is one of those things. I don’t think my dad considered the history of African-Americans or what, if people knew the general’s story, they would think or assume when they met me. He just wanted to name me after one of the bold and daring Civil War heroes he had read about when he was a kid.
I’m not sure when “Lost Cause” theory (look it up sometime) about the causes of the Civil War became prevalent, but it was full-speed ahead by the early 1960s, and my dad embraced and taught much of it to me. You’ll know you are reading Lost Cause material when nearly every action of the Southern states, leading up to and including their secession, is justified, and nearly every action of the Northern states is underhanded and villainous. It’s Lost Cause material when every Southern slave owner was a virtuous family-man of God and Abraham Lincoln was nothing but an opportunistic tyrant. It’s Lost Cause material when the spectre of 246 years of government-sanctioned slavery is not entertained as a cause of the Civil War. But make no mistake, Lost Cause material IS racist, specifically because it tries to leave race and racism completely out of the equation. Because it emphasizes personal freedom over basic human rights.
The central question I always came to with Lost Cause theory was this: “How can you claim to be fighting for freedom from a tyrannical government, while one of the freedoms you would allow would be to hold others in bondage?”
So while I wouldn’t call my own family legacy overtly racist now, like much of America, I would say the roots and systems are definitely there, and can be seen when we look at what is emphasized and what is ignored. I delight in helping my students explore difficult issues that contain MANY sides, not just the standard two dichotomies that we are usually fed by our media. I love helping my students learn to communicate arguments with each other and to the world that are based on facts. I have tried to help them explore and overcome their own biases, prejudices, and stereotypes. And the only successful way that I have found to really make that work is for them to have positive relationships with people that are not like themselves.
But there are some things that I’ve also found that I’m not proud of in my classroom practice as a teacher, when I’ve thought about what I’ve emphasized and what I’ve ignored.
Over the years, I have grown self-righteous in my approach to my students as I have attempted to stack up my good teaching deeds to outweigh my own biases, prejudices and stereotypes.
In my head and NEVER out loud, I have thought things (specifically to my students of color) like:
- “How dare you not find value in this work. Don’t you know it’s about the struggle of your own people?”
- “Why would you suspect me of being racist? Don’t you know I have a black son?”
- “I work and sweat for this school BECAUSE it tries to help students like you. Why would you throw that away?”
- “Why can’t you just make sure your student does their homework for my class? I came to conferences in the city just to meet you and establish a relationship.”
- “I will let you sit next to your friend and distract each other as long as you don’t disrupt my class.”
- “Right now, you are not acting like me. And therefore, you are not likely to find success in this classroom.”
- “I’m not going to really enter into your particular story or situation to try and help you overcome your learning difficulties because hearing all of them is exhausting for me and I have the same expectations for all of my students.”
- “Here is where you are at in my class and in life. And it is not good. And you will have to find it within yourself to do better. And if you don’t you will have no one to blame but yourself.” (Actually, many, many times out-loud).
What I have not said enough, out-loud or sometimes even implicitly, are these things, which I am hoping to do from this time forward.
- “You are welcome here. This is your class just as much as it is everyone else’s in here. If you ever feel unwelcome in this class, then that is MY problem and I will address it.”
- “You are worth getting to know as a person, beyond how much U.S. History content and skills you take in.”
- “You have a voice and input in what we learn about in this class.”
- “You can do this work if you find value in it. I will continually strive to make sure it is good and valuable work for all my students. I will check in with you when I notice that you are struggling and do what I can to help. Your being assigned to my class is a God-ordained opportunity for me, not a headache for both of us.”
- “I will not tell you how to feel about the painful truths of U.S. History and current events, but will instead give you space to explore and express your own valuable considerations and conclusions.”
And though I’ve said it and made jokes about it, in truth I have not succeeded in making this true: “This class is about YOUR history. It is NOT a history of old, dead white guys. It is the story of all of us trying to find freedom in a broken world.”
I am trying to dig up the dark corners of my heart here, but I have many, many blind spots.
The truth is, the more you were like me, the more you probably identified with and enjoyed my class: White, middle class, Christian, college-bound, male, extrovert, heterosexual. But if you were not these things, chances are that my class wasn’t your cup of tea. Human nature and my own dark heart being what they are, I can’t faithfully promise to fix all that today. But I’m starting to listen, and I want to do better, and God help me, I will.