From the recent establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday to the backlash against critical race theory, many educators are now uncertain how to teach about racism in our country’s history. On the one hand, Juneteenth is a perfect example of Black joy. On the other, legislatures in many states have passed or are considering laws restricting the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 classrooms.
What is the significance of Juneteenth? Many enslaved persons knew about the Emancipation Proclamation, but it wasn’t until Union forces arrived in parts of the South that freedom could actually be enforced. June 19, 1865, was the date Union Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 to residents of Galveston, Texas, freeing the remaining people still enslaved in the state. That date was celebrated as Juneteenth in future years.
As of this writing, more than 25 states have taken steps to restrict how schools can teach critical race theory or discuss racism and sexism. Five states, including my home state of Texas, have already passed laws to this effect. As educators, I can understand the concern some may have about increased scrutiny going into next year.
Do these laws mean we can’t teach about racism in U.S. history? No. If you live in one of the states that have passed such a law, be sure to read it closely. The new Texas law that prohibits teachers from being compelled to discuss “a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs” does still require students be taught primary sources related to the Founding Fathers and of the United States, specifically including about Ona Judge (who escaped enslavement by running away from George Washington’s home during dinner), Sally Hemings (who was enslaved and impregnated multiple times by Thomas Jefferson), and the history of white supremacy.
Six of the first eight presidents held human beings in bondage. There is no way to teach an accurate American history without teaching about issues related to race. Check your content standards; it’s there. Look at street names, school names, and historical markers in your communities. Critical race theory isn’t required to help students understand the past.
Most K-12 teachers aren’t teaching critical race theory to begin with. Critical race theory is a theoretical framework introduced in legal studies during the late 1970s and 1980s. I first encountered the approach during my doctoral studies. As University of Southern California law professor Ariela Gross has argued, these laws are part of a backlash against movements for racial justice. I agree.
Telling students what happened in the past will not teach them to hate this country. In fact, quite the opposite has been true in my experience. When students learn more about the past, they are better able to recognize current injustices and the need for improvement. To continue teaching history without breaking new rules introduced in your state, read the law and familiarize yourself with the content standards for the subjects you teach.
While the laws only apply to public schools, educators in other schools will likely face pushback. I’ve worked in a private school since 2014 and have received my share of criticism surrounding my teaching of slavery and related issues. I fully expect that to continue. If you anticipate the pushback you may receive, you can prepare measured and informed responses. For example:
“Why do you have to make everything about race?”
If you have specific questions about my curriculum, please let me know. My goal is to help students use knowledge of the past to understand the present.
“Slavery is over; why do you talk so much about it?”
Chattel slavery ended in the 19th century, but we are living with the effects today. It’s important for students to understand that.
“I don’t want my kids learning critical race theory; why can’t you just teach history?”
Critical race theory is an academic approach taught in graduate schools. In this class, I teach about key events in American history to help students understand America today.
Even if you receive pushback from members of your school community, there are people in the trenches all around the country with whom you can build community. If you have an online network already, use it. If not, build one. We’ll need each other more now than ever.
And if these state laws aren’t a clarion call for integrating primary sources into your teaching, I don’t know what is. For example, I do not tell students the Civil War started over slavery. We read excerpts from state secession declarations, and the kids tell me why it happened.
As a teacher, your job is to help students use information about the past to understand, and improve, the present. That means you should never stop learning. I cannot, with a clear conscience, teach kids about the Civil War without drawing their attention to the current-day controversies over Confederate memorials in many states.
Listen to podcasts like Teaching Hard History, Anti-Social Studies, Seizing Freedom, Teaching While White, 1619. (The 1619 Project, has been specifically banned as a teaching tool in several states, but I still recommend teachers engage with it for background.) Read books like How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All by Martha Jones, and The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Peniel Joseph.
The point of these laws is to scare teachers away from talking about hard history. The people passing these laws know that K-12 teachers aren’t teaching kids about critical race theory. Those that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo do not want students to know the truth. I’m on the other side, and my teaching reflects that. Where do you stand?