By Sundjata Sekou
“There’s a war goin’ on outside no man is safe from/You could run, but you can’t hide forever.”
Those are apt and appropriate words from the great Prodigy of the legendary rap group Mobb Deep. This struggle that is taking place is a cultural tussle to teach public school students that systemic oppression, implicit bias, and racism have been and continue to be sewn into the fabric of America.
This latest exchange centers on a how the collective lived experience of Black people/African Americans is memorialized in America’s history, asking a question. That question asks, “What if, however, we were to tell you that … the country’s true birth date … was in late August of 1619?” The question is taken from the New York Times 1619 Project.
To reposition the American experiment timeline to 1619 is provocative to some and elicits an amen from others. What exactly happened in 1619 that led to this polarizing debate? It is the story of captives from the Ndongo Kingdom, in modern day Angola, who were chained and bound in the hold of a ship crossing the Atlantic headed towards Veracruz, Mexico. English pirates seized the ship and its captives near Mexico. They then sailed to Jamestown where they “unloaded” “20 and odd” of the healthiest Africans at the colony in August 1619.
Most people do not contest that this happened. But the American problem is how it is framed, remembered, and taught. The 1619 project states that the arrival of Africans is America’s origin story. The enslavement and the subsequent anti-Black racism, Black codes, Jim Crow, lynchings, numerous Tulsa-type massacres by white mobs, redlining, mass incarceration, and other injustices are part of American history. To many, it is blasphemous to teach this aspect of American history and to analyze the country through the prism of critical race theory.
Since this question was raised by the 1619 Project to center acts of racial intolerance as defining moments in American history, there are now at least 28 states attempting to pass legislation that would require teachers to whitewash, omit, or lie about the effects of racism in this country. These laws, which use the phrase “critical race theory” without explaining that it is a 40-year-old academic pursuit to examine how racism and law intersect, are intended to restrict teachers and honest classroom conversations about systematic oppression, implicit bias and racism.
Since the story of Africans in America is filled with instances of injustices, these laws will limit conversations about Black people’s over 400-year sojourn in America. It will also not tell the story of one of the captives who was on the ship of oppression that landed on the shores of Jamestown in August 1619. The name of this shero is recorded in history as Angela.
Angela was kidnapped from the Ndongo Kingdom, forced to walk miles to the coast, was put on a slave ship, transferred to a pirate ship, and landed in Jamestown in 1619, where her African name, language, and culture were stripped from her. In 1625, she was listed as living in the household of an Englishman named Captain William Pierce.
I want you to imagine the pain, horror, and trauma that Angela had to endure. Instead of remembering her and the numerous incidents of injustice that Black people have faced, do you think these stories should be forgotten because some people think they divide us or make us uncomfortable? If you think in that manner, my response is that you should get comfortable with being uncomfortable because teachers should NEVER stop teaching stories about the oppressed and marginalized in the United States!
I don’t care who is offended by the truth. I will never stop teaching about racism and the struggle for Black liberation in my classroom. I am “putting that on” Carter G. Woodson, the honorable Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells and all the other ancestors who taught us about the corrosive effects of racism.
Teachers, in your pedagogy when teaching about the oppressed, be bold and uncompromising! Use tried and truthful lesson plans to infuse historical truths, issues of injustices, and examples of triumphs in the face of adversity in your lessons. To assist in that regard, a dedicated group of NJEA members, staff, and consultants were assembled in summer 2021 to write Black/African-American/African history curriculum. The curriculum and its name, the performance tasks, and much more about this curriculum will be unveiled at the 2021 NJEA Convention.
When it comes to teaching all children about racism, you should do as Bob Marley sang:
Tell the children the truth;
Tell the children the truth right now!
Come on and tell the children the truth.
Sundjata Sekou is a third-grade math and science teacher at Mount Vernon Avenue Elementary School in Irvington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.