By Ellen McGirt
February 1, 2017

Today begins the annual month-long celebration called known as African American History Month. For many of us, it’s our busy season. Of course, I mean teachers.

African American History Month is one long teachable moment for dedicated teachers, many of whom have been hamstrung by underwhelming curricula, inadequate source materials, or lukewarm administrators. So when writer, poet, and educator Eve Ewing asked her Twitter followers this simple question on her excellent feed, it became an interesting exercise in student regret:

If you could choose one historical struggle that many people don’t know about and have it be taught in schools, what would it be?

As the answers came pouring in (see below), it was clear that many people felt that they and their communities would be better off now if only they’d learned what really had happened back then.

“I asked the question because several of my friends in Chicago were involved in the campaign to get reparations for those who were tortured over the course of many years by police commander Jon Burge,” Ewing told me by email. Burge was a notorious police commander who was fired in 1993 for torturing a confession from a suspect, just one incident in a nearly 20-year reign of systematic abuse of black citizens. (I confess with no small amount of embarrassment that I had never heard of this case.) The city of Chicago issued a “reparations resolution” and detailed apology, which you can read here.

But the reparations campaign had come with a twist: In addition to monetary compensation, advocates had asked the Chicago Public Schools to add mandatory curriculum content about Burge, the pain he’d caused and the legacy of the case. And that had been on Ewing’s mind. “I have learned that people, especially white people, feel very shocked and even lied to or betrayed when they learn later in life about something they feel they should have learned as a child, especially human rights atrocities,” she said. “It makes you realize that the narratives we receive about history are often very one-sided, or at best tend to represent the point-of-view of those who have the power to do the telling.”

You can read the responses to Ewing’s Twitter query here, but here are some standouts from her crowdsourced curriculum:

All of the suggestions were eye-opening, most pitched with real passion.

The alternate history lessons led me to a bigger question: What is history for? Like so many people, I’ve been haunted by some of our ugliest historical moments: The images of grinning picnickers standing near lynched bodies, the grim scenes inside of internment camps, the dead at Wounded Knee. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of that. But history is nothing if not personal, which is why restoring big parts of our collective story is a noble exercise in inclusion — especially since we’re all on the wrong side of something. To survive the rough spots, we’ll also need a strong dose of courage and forgiveness. Maybe that’s something we can all teach each other.


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