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Five Things to Ask Your Child’s Teacher

By Nicole Doyley First published on on August 26, 2022. Permission granted by author.

Even while controversy over CRT broils in various districts across the nation, many schools are adopting some version of an anti-racist curriculum. They are trying to teach a more honest history, which both extolls the virtues of the US and soberly reveals the gravity of her sins. Teachers are also trying to be more inclusive in the books they teach and buy for their classroom bookshelves; they want to include more brown faces in the lineup of history makers.

Even still, some of these efforts are progressing at a turtle’s pace. New curricula can take years to adopt, but that doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t try to do what they can, today, to teach kids about a diverse array of people.

As we embark on a new school year, here are five things to ask your child’s teacher to help nudge this process forward and to remind him or her that this stuff matters.

1. Will my child learn about Africa before he or she learns about slavery? Black people existed before Europeans exploited them. Will kids learn about the wealth and sophistication of the Kingdom of Kush and the Mali and Songha Empires? In the 16th century, Songha was one of the most powerful states in the world. Will they know the wealth, influence, and sophistication of Zimbabwe? Before slavery, Black people had a world, a life with triumphs and failures, just like everyone else. It is important for kids not to associate Black with trauma.

2. How many books by Black authors will my child read and how many picture books with Black and brown characters will the teacher read to the class? Psychologist Dr. Beverly Tatum tells a story about a white college student commenting, “It’s not my fault that Blacks don’t write books.”[1] In his entire school career, this man had been exposed to not one of the innumerable award-winning books penned by a Black author. Your child should read many of these books during his or her K-12 years.

3. How many remarkable people of color will be discussed throughout the year? I look forward to the day when we no longer need Black History Month because the contributions of Black people are taught throughout the year, and teachers can begin that process now. For example, when talking about early American agriculture, teachers can include George Washington Carver. When discussing the industrial era, they can talk about Lewis Latimer -- and there are thousands of such people. Kids will subliminally realize that of course Black and brown people did great things. Excellent people of color existed in every era, and they are everywhere.

4. How will American slavery be taught? I understand that teachers need to be age appropriate and shouldn’t discuss rape on slave plantations with a bunch of 4th graders! But they can certainly talk about it and other grim realities in high school. Fourth graders can learn that slavery was cruel and unjust. They should be able to reason, “If slavery wasn’t so bad,” as some have suggested, “why would so many enslaved people try to escape with only the clothes on their backs knowing that they would be maimed or killed if they were caught? Why would Harriet Tubman risk her life returning to the South so many times to help friends, family, and strangers to escape?” By the time your child graduates from high school, there should be nothing in him or her that thinks slavery was a necessary evil. It was only evil.

5. What will be taught about the post-Civil War years? Will kids learn about the reneged promise of forty acres and a mule? Will they learn about the terror that swept the South and the realities of Jim Crow? Will they learn about the great migration and northern ghettos, the exorbitant rents charged for tenement dwellings and the inhumane working conditions of Black workers who were grossly underpaid? Will they learn that Black people were legally and systematically shut out of opportunities that were afforded to all other Americans[2], including the Irish, Italians and Jews who were initially discriminated against? And will they learn that despite that, Black people have excelled in every arena?

I am not at all suggesting a combative attitude with teachers. Teachers are smart, generous, professionals, many of whom could make more money with fewer headaches somewhere else, but they choose to teach our kids. I am grateful for them. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t suggest, remind, and respectfully challenge them to make sure that the kids in their classrooms know that Black people most certainly do write books.

*** If you'd like to go with some suggestions on hand, here's a list of resources, many of which are children's books.

[1] Tatum, Dr. Berverly. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Basic Books, New York. 2017. Pg. 85. [2] With the exception of Native Americans.

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