Oklahoma was one of the first states to pass a law restricting conversations of race and racism, but that didn’t dampen the discussion one recent morning in Anthony Crawford’s English class here at Millwood High School. The assignment was to read and analyze an excerpt by Joy DeGruy, author of Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.
As the 12 seniors finished reading, they embarked on a discussion about whether the practice in some Black families of parents hitting their children to discipline them stems from slavery and is symptomatic of the “Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome” described in the reading.
“It’s like a subconscious generational thing, like how we whoop our kids,” said one of the students, Rhéma Coleman.
‘I disagree,” said another student, Evan Fields. “If you do something wrong, your parents [are] teaching right from wrong, I don’t think that it[‘s] got nothing to do with slavery.”
“It’s a form of discipline,” he added.
Donovan Chaney chimed in with a slightly different nuance.
“We’re not trying to say that our parents are doing it because of slavery. I’m saying the origin point was slavery and getting whipped by another race,” he said.
“We’re saying that the discipline we use as of right now has stemmed from slavery,” Rhéma added. “Even though our parents haven’t experienced that direct slavery their [ancestors] did in America. So that’s what they learned and that’s what they instilled in their kids.”
Throughout this debate, Crawford interrupted only to tell the students to not speak over each other.
It’s been a year since Oklahoma passed its law limiting classroom talk on race and racism and calling such discussions “critical race theory.” Although the law does not contain specifics, it says teachers must not make students feel “anguish” or “guilt” for the past actions of their race or sex. It also bans diversity training for teachers.
Sixteen other states have since imposed similar restrictions on lessons about race and racism. Oklahoma’s law does not explicitly ban discussions on historical events such as slavery, but some teachers across the country have told Education Week that they are trying to avoid conversations about anything related to race to avoid getting in trouble.
Oklahoma’s law relies on parents, school employees, and community members to complain about a school district for teaching banned concepts as a method of enforcement.
But discussions on race and racism are everywhere in Millwood. To Rhéma and her fellow seniors, the ability to have these conversations is what makes them feel at home at Millwood High.
District leaders support teaching about race despite restrictions
Millwood High’s administrators, teachers, and students have been vocal opponents of Oklahoma’s law ever since the bill was being debated in the statehouse a year ago. Millwood Public Schools Superintendent Cecilia Robinson-Woods went to the statehouse to speak out against the bill while it was under consideration and has told Education Week repeatedly that she will not censor conversations about race and racism at the cost of student learning.
One reason is the school’s demographics. Millwood High School is 98 percent Black, and 80 percent of the teachers in the district are also Black. Every student in Crawford’s English class is Black, which makes students feel comfortable to talk openly about their families, communities, and Black culture at school without fearing that their discussions are going to make white students feel “anguished.”
“I wouldn’t classify it as talking about race,” Rhéma said, “but as talking about who we are as people in our tendencies and what we notice that our family members do, what we do.”
But when Crawford first started teaching at Millwood, he realized his students didn’t know much about their history or culture.
“Most of these kids don’t know anything about who they are, where they come from, their family history, and how their culture got into this position in society,” Crawford said. “So when I got here, it was just a must to surround them with these truths, this knowledge so they understand what they’re getting themselves into when they leave.”
Crawford is part of a lawsuit challenging OKlahoma’s anti-CRT law for being vague, overbroad, and creating a chilling effect. Although he has not changed his teaching in response to the law, he said he wants to ensure that teachers across the state can have the same instructional freedoms.
His classroom walls are covered with student-led projects on civil rights, the Tulsa Race Massacre, and segregation. A Black History Month poster covering much of the wall directly in front of the classroom has the word “month” crossed and replaced with “year.”
‘Teaching the truth’ in history class
Crawford’s class isn’t the only place in the school to showcase Black history and culture. Millwood’s hallways are lined with tributes to Black historical figures and artwork by the students.
The high school also offers a Black American history class, taught by Kala Hester. During a recent lesson, Hester taught about the start of the civil rights movement.
She started by showing the seniors a presentation about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy who was tortured, shot in the face, and then drowned by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman.
She told her class to Google Till’s funeral photos, to see that his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, decided to have an open casket to expose the world to her son’s mutilated body and face. Once students got on their phones, there were gasps across the classroom as they found the photo.
“She had an open casket for a reason. Why?” Hester asked.
“[Till Bradley] wanted people to see the truth,” one of her students said. Hester nodded. “She wanted people to see what they did to her little boy,” she said.
There was a brief silence in the room for Hester’s students to digest the photos and her words, before she moved on to Rosa Parks and the early years of the civil rights movement.
When the anti-CRT law was first passed, Hester was concerned about what she could and couldn’t say. But she decided it was important to keep teaching the way she did, which meant continuing to rely on teaching historical facts.
When the law first passed in Oklahoma, Millwood Superintendent Robinson-Woods invited an expert to break down the language in the law and offer training to teachers on how teaching facts would not violate it, Crawford said, which helped teachers feel safe when they talked or taught about and racism.
“Black history is American history. So we’re just teaching the truth,” Hester said about her class. “I think it impacts the students in a positive way because they get to know their own history.”
Like Crawford’s class, the seniors in Hester’s class also would start impromptu discussions about race and their communities, which she allowed and occasionally participated in during a recent visit.
“Even though they’re young, there’s a lot of stuff going on that affects them, like the injustice in the criminal justice system,” she said.
“So I feel like the more we talk about it, they can protect themselves in a way with their knowledge.”
Before coming to Millwood, both Hester and Crawford felt they had few opportunities to teach about Black history but for different reasons. In Hester’s case, she was often the only Black teacher in her school building, which made her feel isolated and censored when she wanted to fill in pieces of Black history that were missing in the curriculum.
Crawford said administrators at the private school where he had taught for five years let him go because he taught about race and racism and encouraged student discussions on those topics.
“I was just trying to build a community in which everybody is involved in making changes in providing information to help build our youth,” Crawford said. “And I got a lot of backlash, which was hurtful, from my own people.”
But at Millwood, students love Crawford’s class.
“Crawford was pretty much the only teacher I’ve had that was just like, you can speak what you want and how you want,” Donovan Chaney, one of the students in the class, said.
“So that law is never going to affect us. We’ve been taught, we’ve been motivated, we’ve been inspired, we’ve been pushed to have an opinion and talk about it, regardless of what the law says.”
Donovan’s classmates, Rhéma and Evan, both transferred to Millwood High from other schools in Oklahoma, and found a community where they could talk openly about the issues on their minds. Because of the environment their teachers and administrators have fostered, they can’t imagine Oklahoma’s law actually restricting any conversations on race in their school.
Said Evan: “I think Millwood wouldn’t be what it is if that law really affected us.”
This story is part of an occasional series, Teaching About Race, that examines how some public educators teach about the concepts of race and racism, topics that have been effectively banned from classroom lessons and discussions in some states.
Coverage of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2022 edition of Education Week as A School Openly Discusses Race in a State That Bans It