Teaching History Without Harsh Truths? Tennessee's Law Demands the ImpossibleRoundup
tags: African American history, Tennessee, teaching history, Divisive Concepts
David Barber is a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Martin.
It is certainly true that under Tennessee law you can teach something that our educational authorities call “Black history.”
You can, for example, undoubtedly put a picture of Malcolm X in a textbook, and your textbook will be quite favorably judged should you caption that picture “apostle of violence,” but under the education laws of the state of Tennessee, should you discuss in a K-12 school Malcolm’s thinking, should you talk about how Malcolm understood America, or should you try to explore Malcolm’s understandings of what being Black or being white in America means, you will lose your job or your school district will lose state funding.
Because to discuss Malcolm’s thinking is to tell some very hard and ugly truths about American realities, truths that our political leaders do not want our young people – especially our young white people – to hear.
The popular media of Malcolm’s day, for example, labeled Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, together with Malcolm as the NOI’s chief spokesman, “preachers of hate.”
In a Tennessee high school today, to give Malcolm’s response to that charge would be illegal. “Who taught them [Black people] to hate the texture of their hair, so much that they’ll put lye on it?” asked Malcolm. “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind?
"Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to, so much so that you don’t want to be around each other? No, before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God gave you.”
Malcolm’s unique authority – the reason Black people loved him – James Baldwin tells us, stems from the fact that Malcolm told the raw truth about the lives Black people actually lived in America, and told that truth when no other Black leader did so. Malcolm’s text always centered on the bitter truth of the daily humiliations Black people suffered at the hands of white people: on the criminal conduct of the avaricious landlord who took rent money month after month and year after year, even as he left unrepaired leaky plumbing in his slum buildings that might send raw sewage crashing down through rotted-out floors, ceilings and walls; even as furnaces failed again and again on the coldest winter days; and even as rats and roaches played side by side with the ghetto’s children in these apartments.
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