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Local Black educator says President’s proposed patriotic commission devalues African Americans

Posted at 6:33 PM, Sep 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-29 19:33:11-04

MILWAUKEE — After President Donald Trump announced his plan to sign an executive order to encourage a more patriotic curriculum in American schools, local African American educators say this will further devalue Black students.

On Sept. 17, President Trump announced his intention to create the 1776 Commission: an effort to have education focus on the positives in America’s history.

“The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project. This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom," Trump said at the time.

The 1619 Project is a Pulitzer Prize winning piece of journalism that, “It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” It has received criticism, to which the New York Times has responded to.

The information included in the 1619 Project are something some educators are beginning to include in their curriculum. It’s something Angela Harris, Chairwoman of the Black Educators Caucus, feels is important to include.

“When we talk about Black and brown children in particular, they very rarely feel like they’re seen or represented in the curriculum presently,” Harris said. “I believe it’s important for Americans in general to understand, slavery is part of American history. It’s not a part of just Black history or African history. It’s part of American history. But there are also stories of resilience and perseverance that come out of the slavery experienced that aren’t discussed in the curriculum.”

President Trump went on to explain more about the 1776 Commission to stoke fear in families about what children are learning in class.

“Critical Race Theory is being forced into our children’s schools,” President Trump said. “It’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families. By viewing every issue through the lens of race, they want to impose a new segregation, and we must not allow that to happen. Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country.”

“Donald Trump is a racist man,” Dr. Howard Fuller, former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools said. “I’m not saying everyone who votes for Donald Trump is a racist but Donald Trump is a racist. Anything that comes out of his mouth, as far as I’m concerned, comes through that frame.”

Fuller feels this commission was geared towards invigorating the President’s voter base ahead of the election.

“Those actions are all geared towards, saying to white people, if you’re not careful, America won’t be the white country it was founded to be,” Fuller said. “That’s the foundation of this. When Black people first came here, they did not come as slaves. They came as indentured servants. Decisions were made later on to enslave us. It was an economic decision. Slavery was a critical economic foundation for this country.”

Others feel the current state of curricula across the country is too liberal.

“We have to be careful that we’re basing what we’re saying on facts,” Will Flanders with Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty (WILL) said. “There is a lot of rhetoric, we know on all sides of the debate today, is not based on facts. What we teach in schools needs to have that factual basis.”

Flanders was educated in the south and believes education has become progressively more liberal since the 1950s.

“I think what we saw in the 1960s and some movements in that era, that’s when Howard Zinn came to prominence, a professor presenting a more liberal narrative of American history,” Flanders said. “The story here is, we’ve swung too far in the other direction. The 1776 idea could give a more balanced look by presenting both sides and let folks have a different view. While we should learn from our failures, and there are absolutely many failures in American history, there are many successes to learn from.”

Harris says otherwise.

“It’s another opportunity for the Black experience in America to be erased,” Harris said. “When we talk about this patriotic curriculum, what does that look like? What does that entail? How does that feel? If we roll back to this time of patriotic curriculum and teaching students this whitewashed version of American history, it will 100 percent be a way to erase the experiences and values of the Black and brown and immigrant students bring to our classrooms and school environments every day.”

Harris also disputes the idea that education has gotten more liberal. As a young Black girl, she says her parents often had to “un-teach” her things she was learning in school about the treatment of African Americans in America.

“I can remember being in elementary school and having teachers refer to slave as hard workers or refer to them as immigrants,” Harris said. “I’d go home and have conversations with my mom, who is the great-granddaughter of a sharecropper and she’d be like, He wasn’t a hard worker because He wanted to be. He was a hard worker because He was forced to be. It’s in the context you choose to share this with children and the words you’re using when talking about history. You can begin to water down slavery and make folks feel like it was perhaps a choice or something that the enslaved enjoyed doing.”

It went further than just racism, including discussions about one of the biggest Civil Rights leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“There is a part of Dr. King we were not taught at all in elementary school,” Harris said. “We didn’t talk about the Dr. King who wrote a Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Dr. King who was opposed to the Vietnam War or the Dr. King who, admittedly, before his life was taken, said he didn’t feel like non-violence was the only way to get the results he was looking for. Those are all things I didn't learn until my college and adulthood. Those are things we’re battling against as educators. That’s the historical truth we’re trying to teach our students. We don’t want you to see just one part of the story. We want you to see the whole picture.”

Flanders says he’s not opposed to showing the whole picture, but he believes it should be more balanced.

“The problem is we’re presenting kids with a very negative view of American history,” Flanders said. “We’re presenting kids with a story, while racism is absolutely part of American history, that we need to talk about and consider, it’s not the sole story of America. We don’t really get the good side of what happened here. The miracle of democracy, the wisdom of capitalist systems and things of that nature that do play an important role in where we’ve gotten today.”

Harris says, the kind of curriculum Flanders is talking about will devalue Black and brown students. She says it will continue teaching students who look like her that they have to assimilate and fit into the America as seen through the white lens.

"I ultimately feel like he’s trying to roll America back to a time where folks were not taught the correct history,” Harris said. “He’s trying to uphold something that desperately needs to be changed.

Harris says, when talking about patriotism, it can be a story told with more Black and brown inclusion.

"There were slaves actually fighting in wars when they weren’t free for our country in order for them to be free,” Harris said. “There are all kinds of acts and examples of patriotism that aren’t specific to the white experience in America.”

Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Keith Posley was not available for an interview but released the following statement:

“At this time, there are no plans for MPS to implement or consider any curriculum from the 1776 Commission.”

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