“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi” is an observation frequently attributed to William Faulkner (although he might not have actually said it). Despite the ambiguity of its origin, the remark can offer a useful framework for considering the recent fervor over how we teach American history, particularly the historical experiences and perspectives of Black and Indigenous people and other people of color.
As a veteran teacher whose time in a Mississippi classroom is approaching the end of its third decade, I’ve witnessed how much of my state has been shaped by common narratives—often incomplete or incorrect—about our shared history.
These incomplete histories—typically celebrated by those who benefit most from the status quo—not only prevent students from confronting important elements of our state history but also contribute to entrenched injustices in our society. Racial violence, economic injustice, and the corrupt exercise of power have often been absent from many of our history classrooms—not just those in my state.
These partial narratives undermine our ability to live up to some of our nation’s founding ideals—most notably, the recognition of equality. Mississippi students are then left to confront injustices without the perspective, knowledge, and wisdom history can offer. For instance, the Mississippi Plan, which was devised by white Southern Democrats in 1875 to suppress the political power of the state’s majority Black population with the use of organized violence, isn’t included in the high school curriculum that the state requires for graduation.
Some Mississippians have worked to uncover and share a more complete understanding of our state’s history and the experiences of all who have called Mississippi home. In some classrooms, that recognition has found expression through primary-document research projects exploring local history. In The Eighth of May Emancipation Celebration, a research and performance project I developed for my students, high school juniors and seniors explore how local Black experiences reflect our regional and national history.
The students conduct primary-document research to explore Black history from our community, develop critical-thinking skills, and share their findings through public performance. When sharing their research, students not only learn important history, but they also develop their voices and recognize their potential for leadership through steering relevant discussions of race, class, and democracy.
The benefits of exploring a more complete and accurate understanding of our local past—particularly Black history—while gaining insights applicable to our national past are obvious. Students are empowered to contribute more fully to their local community, and the community comes to understand itself better.
The benefits of exploring a more complete and accurate understanding of our local past—particularly Black history—while gaining insights applicable to our national past are obvious.
To critics of a more inclusive history curriculum, however, uncovering and sharing a more complete picture of our racial past somehow constitutes a biased rewriting of history that is destructive to the core values of our state and nation. That position puzzles history teachers like me who recognize the need to accurately teach and understand our nation’s history.
During our emancipation-celebration performances two years ago, one of my students demonstrated the emotional weight of telling that more complete history. Reciting a script created from student research about Robert Gleed, a Black Reconstruction-era state senator who was driven out of Mississippi by white violence, my student concluded: “While my time on this Earth ended over a century ago, seeing all of you here tells me I didn’t struggle for nothing.”
Teachers and students who study history carefully can aspire to the legacy left to us by Americans who have struggled in the past. We can realize whose experiences and perspectives have been devalued or purposefully distorted. We can see how many Americans have had to struggle against racist resistance, violence, and oppression to achieve full access to those truths that are supposed to be “self-evident.” We also see Americans who continue to struggle for a better future, in spite of the many obstacles placed before them.
Coverage of race and opportunity is supported in part by a grant from Spencer Foundation, at www.spencer.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Correcting the False Narratives In Our Local History