White students need Black history
In 1971, my family moved from a pleasant, tree-lined neighborhood in Rochester, New York, to the suburbs. I was 13 and about to start high school, and my parents wanted me to go to a “good school” in a nearby town. Black families had begun to move into our middle-class neighborhood for the first time, and many moneyed families were carting their kids off to whiter places (except for the liberals who protested the mass exodus, taping “We’re staying” signs in their windows.)
I was upset and confused about the move. My city was mandating busing to integrate its segregated schools, and Black children who were being forced to attend majority white schools were insulted and attacked. Riots against discrimination in employment, housing, and policing had rocked the city in 1964, but poverty and inequality persisted; the nearby Attica prison uprising shocked the community in 1971.
I felt on some deep level that the system was unfair; I knew my family had mobility and options because of the color of our skin, but I had very little context to help me understand why.
I was not happy about attending my new all-white school, but it ended up benefiting me in specific ways. My AP American History class honestly addressed the role that the enslavement of kidnapped Africans played in building economic wealth in both the north and the south. We studied the positive accomplishments of post-Civil War Reconstruction, including the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, the backlash of Jim Crow legislation and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the profound impact of the Civil Rights movement.
In my Black literature class, we read the works of Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin. Their incisive descriptions of living in the fishbowl of racism were disturbing and eye-opening, as they should be.
In his 1963 “Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin appears to speak directly to the Florida legislature's attempts to squelch African American studies: “The paradox of education is… that, as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions.” My teachers showed me that the society we live in was created by the people who came before and can be transformed into something new.
My classes helped me – a white northern girl -- to understand the forces that propelled the white flight and racial segregation I witnessed in the 70’s. They also offered me a window into the experiences of those subjugated by the system, experiences to which I would not otherwise have been exposed. In the best sense of the term, my education woke me up.
Fortunately, none of the teachers or administrators in my high school worried that I was too delicate to handle content that might make me feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish on account of my race. Quite the contrary, they gave me the context and the confidence to examine inequity, cherish diversity, and believe in the possibility of social justice. They taught me to study and teach the truth. For that I will always be grateful.
Anne Meisenzahl is a retired adult education teacher. She is a reentry advocate and teaches poetry to people in prison.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Why white students need Black history