by Alexis Mburu
They say we have to learn our history so as not to repeat it. While I do believe the saying to be true, we must think beyond this sentiment in our current age because there’s a lot more to history than what we read in books.
In the past few months, we have seen a massive insurgence from Republican politicians pushing to ban critical race theory from K-12 schools. These pundits and conservative Republicans describe critical race theory as anti-American rhetoric, racist and abusive, and teaching their children to hate their skin color; all of which are not true. In fact, critical race theory (CRT) is not even taught in K–12 schooling and there is a large misunderstanding of what it actually is: a tool in upper academia, specifically in law school, used to analyze the U.S. legal system and its intersection with racial oppression. Instead, the term has been used to represent the idea of anti-racism being taught to students and the seemingly more rage-inducing topic of teaching a true, non-whitewashed portrayal of this country’s history.
The American education system is deeply flawed, in more ways than one, but we’ll focus on its near-complete absence of perspectives outside of the white point of view. Eric Anthony Souza Ponce, a recently graduated Mexican American senior from Ballard High School, in his advocacy for racial equity and ethnic studies in schools, often remarks, “we study the history of white people, we read literature by white people, but nowhere in the curriculum do we see ourselves unless it is due to a traumatic relationship to whiteness.”
There’s a reason why textbooks in certain parts of the country have been known to refer to enslaved African people as “workers,” giving no acknowledgement to the true horror that was slavery in this country. There is a reason people seldom have the opportunity to learn about Black/African American, Latino/Latina, or Native American studies in their entirety until college — why people are only now learning about the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre and the meaning behind Juneteenth.
The reason is a culmination of many things, but the bottom line is this: People of Color are denied their right to intellectual triumph because the white supremacist system we inhabit is engulfed in shame and, most of all, fear. Generations of enslaved and free Black people weren’t allowed to read, write, or go to school, but they fought for the right and so do we. Knowledge is power. You know it, I know it, our ancestors knew it, and our successors will know it.
As Ponce said, People of Color’s history and culture is often only shown in a light demonstrating their proximity to whiteness or to highlight trauma. There is so much missing from the stories we hear. Stories of joy, liberation, success and everything in between are just as valuable to our education.
I was fortunate enough to be a part of the NAACP Youth Council’s (N-YC) recent trip to Washington D.C. and the greater D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area. The trip was layered with power on each jam-packed day. Visiting the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, and the historic Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial with a group of majority Black youth, there was no lack of Black appreciation.
Amidst a week filled with eating soul food to last us ages, visiting the esteemed, historically Black Howard University, and having only Black tour guides, this was a trip that taught us history we had never heard about or knew only one part of. We learned the good, the bad, and in between. Our ancestors were kings and queens. We have innovated and invented. We are more than just our trauma. The experience gleamed a light on the bridge connecting the past and present. Most importantly, it made the light of all the amazing N-YC youth glow that much brighter.
“This trip was extremely eye opening to me as it allowed me to be more appreciative of my race and culture,” said N-YC member Afia Darko.
Another member, Nabbil Hassan, said, “Going on this trip to D.C., I got to learn so much. I learned about people like Charles Drew who invented blood transfusions but died because a white hospital denied him a blood transfusion based on the color of his skin.”
I know for me this trip was a giant reminder that knowledge is power but collective knowledge means community and, I believe, community is key with most things. Don’t be fooled, either — community means people from all walks of life. It can be as small as a backyard get-together or a full-blown revolution.
Learning about diverse perspectives of history is beneficial to everyone, not just the people of the narrative being told. We need to learn history so as not to repeat the errors our predecessors have made. We also need to learn history to show us what is possible and to replicate and improve the things that prospered. Let us also not forget we are in the middle of making our own history. Asking questions like whose history we are learning and why will solidify our path to a better future.
This isn’t the first time our right to live our best selves has been infringed upon, and it likely won’t be the last. Generations of government, higher education, and other institutions have a history of suppressing our ability to prosper. But time has proven over and again that with the right amount of fellowship, knowledge, and courage we can power through to a better side.
Alexis Mburu is a high schooler in Tukwila, Washington. She is a member of the NAACP Youth Council and on the Advisory Board for Washington Ethnic Studies Now. She is a part of the Tukwila Children’s Foundation as well as a co-facilitator for her district’s Race and Equity Committee.
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