Jesse Hagopian is a high school teacher, a staff member of the Zinn Education Project, and an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. He has edited and co-edited a number of books, including Teaching for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice and More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing.
Last year, we sat down with Jesse to learn how the Teaching for Black Lives campaign is bringing racial justice and people’s history resources to classrooms across the United States. Here, Jesse expands on the critical importance of teaching truth in our school curriculums and reveals why most students are only taught a partial and biased version of history.
People make history and the stories of how history is made are riveting, but you wouldn’t know that from traditional textbooks. Instead, students lurch from war to war, memorizing names of people and dates of key events. They quickly conclude that history is boring and irrelevant.
But is it? Take Rosa Parks for example. Students learn year after year that she changed history when one day she was tired and bravely refused to give up her seat on the bus. In truth, this was not the first protest she had made on a bus and hundreds of African Americans had taken a stand on a bus or streetcar before she did. Some with names readers will recognize, like Frederick Douglass and Jackie Robinson. But others you may not know, like Elizabeth Jennings, Sarah Keys, Barbara Pope, and countless more. When Irene Morgan was handed an arrest warrant for refusing to give up her seat in 1944, she bravely tore it up and threw it out the window. And Parks herself had a long history of activism, including working with the NAACP to provide support for Black women who had been assaulted by white men.
The traditional narrative leaves the impression that African Americans passively accepted Jim Crow abuse for decades until by chance one brave woman acted spontaneously. This strips the history of the agency of African Americans who had consistently defended their rights and had already conceived of a bus boycott before Parks’ action in 1955. It is much more interesting and empowering for young people to learn about the long history and wide range of actions over decades, than to learn the same sanitized story year after year.
It makes a difference for young people to see themselves in history and learn that, rather than waiting for the luck of a hero to come along, we must all play a role. As SNCC veteran and filmmaker Judy Richardson said, “If we don’t learn that it was people just like us—our mothers, our uncles, our classmates, our clergy—who made and sustained the modern Civil Rights Movement, then we won’t know we can do it again. And then the other side wins—even before we ever begin the fight.”
While the Civil Rights Movement is generally taught through a narrow lens, there is another equally important era that gets little attention at all. That is the period immediately following the Civil War, known as the Reconstruction era. There was unprecedented change, with Black people organizing to fulfill freedom’s promise in labor, politics, and education. The accomplishments of formerly enslaved people can fill volumes, but rarely get more than a cursory mention in most K–12 standard curriculums.
The extraordinary work of African Americans to create a window of interracial democracy in the United States was met by a violent white supremacist backlash and was all but crushed. According to a new study by the Zinn Education Project, Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction, the placement of the era at the end of 8th grade U.S. history courses means that most students never get to it. And if they do, they learn about the role of U.S. presidents and how Reconstruction was a “failure”. This despite the parallels to current events, such as the attempted insurrection on January 6th, 2021 and voter suppression laws.
There are a growing number of teachers who have tossed the textbooks aside and focus on people’s history. That number increased after the uprising against police brutality in June of 2020. Many school districts also took a fresh look at their mission statements—moving from language about “diversity” and “multicultural” to stronger commitments to anti-racist education.
As with the backlash during Reconstruction, the right has launched a national campaign to make it illegal for teachers to address most of what I have just described above. For example, North Dakota passed a law to ban teaching “that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality.” Instead, teachers must say that racism is “merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice.” What portion of U.S. history can be taught without looking at systemic racism?
The right-wing claims that anti-racist education makes white children feel guilty. In fact, North Dakota demands that we teach that racism is caused only by individual white people—rather than by centuries of white supremacy. That’s a perspective designed to make white children feel guilty. And the flip side of this is to blame individual people of color for economic and political inequality.
If we want young people to have the knowledge and skills to shape a more just future, then we need to fight for their right to learn from history. Teachers can seek the support of their union and peers. Those who are not teachers can write letters to the editor, attend school board meetings, and speak out on social media in defense of the right of young people to learn history that is uncensored and truthful.
You can learn more about Jesse and his work here, and discover how you can support the growing movement to teach people’s history in classrooms across North America here.