‘These are the facts’: Black educators silenced from teaching America’s racist past

History teacher Valanna White filed into the auditorium the first week of August for the customary back-to-school all-staff meeting at Walker Valley high school in Cleveland, Tennessee. What she heard shifted her outlook for the coming school year. On 1 July, a new law took effect banning the teaching of critical race theory in Tennessee public schools. White listened intently as a school district official gave a vague overview informing the group that critical race theory was prohibited, though without fully explaining what critical race theory entails. Instead, teachers were told a list of actions – such as discussing racial discrimination – that were forbidden.

White left the meeting confused and frustrated. Tennessee’s academic standards for US history require high school teachers to cover topics including Jim Crow laws, Plessy v Ferguson – the 1896 supreme court case upholding the separate-but-equal doctrine – and the civil rights movement. “I can’t talk about the civil rights movement without talking about Bloody Sunday and the premise behind Bloody Sunday, the premise behind voter suppression,” she said, dreading the repercussions “for just teaching my standards”.

As the one Black teacher in a high school of 1,400 students, White felt alienated. Racial discrimination is not an abstract concept to her. Classroom conversations about race and institutional racism were already a delicate dance of carefully chosen words delivered by White to her school’s majority white student body. “No matter what I say, it’s constantly scrutinized or even misconstrued,” she said, adding that students often equate material on race as her opinion, as opposed to factual information. Now teaching a precise accounting of history was going to be not just tricky but professionally risky. “It’s all about interpretation, regardless if I’m presenting facts or not … if they perceive it wrong, I could get in trouble.”

In Tennessee, teachers are now required to avoid materials that state “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously”. Among the repercussions for violating the new measure are Tennessee districts losing state funding and individual teachers having their licenses revoked or suspended.

Teaching America’s complex racial past has become infinitely more difficult with a spate of new laws passed in some states in recent months. As racial justice protests and a so-called national reckoning on race have prompted a closer examination of whose history is excluded in schools and why, outlawing critical race theory (CRT) became the rallying cry of conservative lawmakers in state houses, by state boards of education, and at raucous school board meetings. CRT emerged in the 1980s as an academic discipline commonly taught in colleges and law schools. The concept interrogates the ways that institutional and structural racism have fundamentally shaped the country’s policies and laws. Experts view it as a way of explaining deep racial disparities in the US and grappling with America’s history of white supremacy. Others argue that CRT amounts to racially divisive indoctrination of students.

Twenty-two states have passed or are considering legislation to ban or restrict discourse on race and racism in the country’s public K-12 classrooms, according to Brookings Institution analysis completed in August. Starting this month, teachers in Texas are barred from telling students that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality”. And in July in Iowa, teaching concepts that could lead to “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex” were prohibited.

Heading into a new school year, many teachers are broadly feeling the backlash from scaremongering headlines and condemnations of CRT by lawmakers. But the overheated rhetoric has put Black teachers – already a meager share of the workforce – in a uniquely vulnerable position. Amid a renewed urgency to teach about race, some Black teachers are reminded daily that their racial identity is a liability rather than an asset – a consequence with historical significance and potentially long-lasting effects, including a shrinking pool of Black teachers in public schools.

Thomas M Philip is a professor at Berkeley’s graduate school of education whose research examines how teachers act based on their sense of agency in classrooms. He says anti-history laws that support a narrowly skewed, one-dimensional version of history undermine the purpose of teaching for many Black teachers. Studies show that Black teachers, in particular, come to teaching with strong commitments to providing a more nuanced portrayal of history and society. So as public schools move toward “teaching as conveying a narrow set of skills and discourse as patriotism”, teachers who are willing to have “complex dialogues in a classroom around issues of race, racism, and racial justice will find it harder to remain in the profession”, Philip said.

Monique Cottman, a Black teacher leader who trains and supports teachers in a large school district in Iowa, said her state’s law had a “chilling effect” on Black teachers, affecting their ability to be their authentic selves at their schools. Some are now questioning whether to stay in the classroom, said Cottman who requested not to name her district. The dichotomy, she said, is answering their calling to teach or following a law that treats them “like a second-class citizen. Black teachers today are thinking about what it means for school districts to deny us our human rights in the name of legality.”

She noted the double bind the laws have created in schools, where school diversity is openly praised, but Black teachers are expected to closet a part of their identity at work. Cottman, a 15-year teaching veteran, recalled one example of a school’s administrators celebrating the presence of Black Lives Matter flags, but answering a Black teacher with silence when she asked what her value was at the school.

“That, I think, is indicative of the internal conflict,” Cottman said, “that a Black teacher knows I am going into a school that will wave a Black Lives Matter flag, but also lets me know in other ways that my Black life does not matter here, that I don’t have a voice in decisions that will make this a less hostile environment for me, that I can’t teach the truth now under this current legislation.”

History teacher Nelva Williamson shares Cottman’s distress. A teacher for 41 years, she takes seriously the responsibility to teach the country’s unvarnished history to her mostly Black and Hispanic students at Young Women’s College Prep Academy in Houston. The school sits nearby the site of a defining event in the city’s civil rights history: on 4 March 1960, Black students from Texas Southern University staged Houston’s first sit-in at a “whites only” lunch counter. “This is the history that these censorship laws want to suppress,” she said.

Williamson hopes teaching local history like this will mold her students into critical thinkers who will dismantle current systemic inequities. But under the new Texas law, her teaching of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 15th amendment (which granted voting rights to Black men) would be restricted, as it regulates how history subjects surrounding race and racism are covered – notably, she said, as the voting rights of Black Texans are under assault.

Born in 1957, she said she’s insulted by a law that forbids her to tell the truth about her own lived experiences. “It’s like stripping away a part of me … who I am, and what my ancestors have gone through,” she said. “My ancestors matter. I matter. My students matter,” she continued, her voice cracking with emotion. Her righteous indignation led her to join the Teach the Truth campaign sponsored by the Zinn Education Project, a Washington DC-based non-profit that promotes and supports a more accurate and complex teaching of history in middle and high school classrooms. Williamson and about 7,400 other educators have signed the organization’s pledge refusing “to lie to young people about US history and current events”.

Keffrelyn Brown, a professor of cultural studies and education at the University of Texas at Austin, says it is the automatic link of Black teachers as racialized professionals with discussions of race in the classroom that can make them a target for teaching the same material as white teachers. “If there’s any conversation around race, the assumption is that Black people will probably be talking about it,” she said. Black teachers aren’t given a space to address important aspects of history without it being seen as largely a personal interest, Brown explained.

It manifests as an extra burden they must bear “just by virtue of who they are and what they are perceived to represent”, she said. And while Black educators have always navigated this conundrum, they are particularly under scrutiny now, at a time when schools interrogating racism is sparking controversy.

“In some cases, what they actually do address in their teaching can be either minimized, or simply written off as bias or personal agendas,” Brown said, and at worst, Black teachers can be labeled ineffective – a pattern found in research on teacher evaluation ratings.

This all sounds familiar to White, whose history lessons always carry the caveat “that I’m not pushing an agenda. These are the facts.” She is acutely aware that her Blackness sets her apart from colleagues in teaching subjects such as the brutal history of lynching and racial terror in the Jim Crow era. “Whereas they get to say whatever they need to say as the students take it as factual, I get pushback of ‘Why would you feel this way, Ms White? Why are you telling us about this?’ It’s harder to say the things that [white teachers] can just say freely or even talk about.”

The external pressures on Black teachers like White are intense as they struggle to bring their full selves to the classroom, while cautiously navigating new policies that constrain their teaching and feel increasingly unsafe. Other times when Black teachers have taken a stand they were purged from their jobs – casting an ominous shadow over what can happen when Black teachers are thrust into the country’s larger culture wars.

Historian Charles C Bolton chronicles the systematic firing of Black teachers who advocated for civil rights in The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle Over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870-1980. The US supreme court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education ruling not only struck down segregation in public schools but also invigorated the civil rights movement; this placed Black teachers squarely in the bullseye. Following the landmark Scotus decision, segregationists focused their antipathy on the NAACP – the legal powerhouse behind the case. Across the south, states outlawed the organization and passed legislation barring NAACP members from holding state or local government jobs.

Black teachers – whose activism was the lifeblood of local NAACP chapters – were swiftly fired or forced to resign. Candace Cunningham, assistant professor of history at Florida Atlantic University, recounts the story of 21 Black teachers in South Carolina who were dismissed from their jobs in 1956 for refusing to sign an oath disavowing the civil rights group. She writes of Black teachers “as community leaders whose work was politicized because it challenged white supremacy” – an observation that seemingly holds as true today as it did 65 years ago.

Back in Tennessee, White has spent the first month of school as the sounding board for staff to talk through their thoughts on the new law – as she pushes aside the heaviness of being the sole Black teacher at her school. “My own true feelings and emotions of what’s actually going on can’t be shown because of being ostracized or belittled or even demeaned … people just don’t understand what I have to deal with as an African-American teacher.” As classes began on 6 August, she has steered her energy into getting to know the new crop of students and teaching them to question and think for themselves as she delivers lessons on US civil liberties and civil rights. Refusing to be distracted by the political spectacle, she’s committed to doing the work she’s done for the last seven years. “I teach the way I teach,” she said. “I teach the truth. The truth is not wrong.”

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