America's grim identity crisis: What Ferguson & Garner tell us about the history we don't teach

As a woman of color, I was taught very little about myself in the U.S. Now that I'm overseas, here's what I know

Published December 5, 2014 4:01PM (EST)

Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice
Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice

I teach middle school African history in Botswana. As a history teacher, I measure myself by the extent to which I can understand (or at the very least recognize) my own ignorance. Far away in Ferguson, the maelstrom of our collective turning of a blind eye burns on.  Right now, I am certain that the United States knows nothing of itself.

I have two rules for teaching teenagers: 1) You must never bore your students. 2) You must never underestimate or condescend to them. Perhaps, these two rules should apply for teaching a nation. One of the reasons we teach children history is to cultivate good citizenship.  In the wake of Ferguson, it is evident we have not done our job right.  I am not talking of the people taking to the streets, but to those of us who have failed to see the reason that the streets should be occupied at all. We have succumbed to the tedium of rote and corrupt history. We have condescended to ourselves.

In Livingstone, Zambia I find myself wandering through a small museum after spending the afternoon booking a trip to the rim of Victoria Falls’ Devil’s Pool. One placard stops me in my tracks. It reads, “THE SCHOOL is a common feature near ‘our village.’ Here children are taught to read and write, taught much about the world but very little about themselves…”

My school in Botswana is an exceptional institution. Our faculty is exemplary, compassionate, and dedicated. Students produce national theater pieces, compete internationally in sport and debate, engage their community in service, and go on to make homes in the tallest of Ivy towers.  They are taught everything of the world. In the United States, in high school I learned to play multiple musical instruments. I studied Spanish, statistics, calculus, philosophy, European and world history (as if these are actually different things), psychology, the sciences, and visual art. I volunteered for community tutoring programs, sat on the city youth council, and excelled in athletics. Like my students in Botswana, I was taught everything of the world.

Despite this schooling, as a person of color, as a woman, as an American and from a family of modest means, I was taught very little about myself.  In fact, I was never really taught what any of that meant beyond the brief nod toward a “peculiar institution,” the heroic fiction that the tides of history ebb and flow because of a few superhuman characters, and the innate exceptionality of the red, white and blue.

I was never taught that American democracy and African American destruction are not substitutes but complements. I was never taught that the relative wealth of America is derived from theft. I was never taught that state sanctioned violence was not a residual piece of American life, but the core of it. I was never taught that the fulcrum of the American criminal justice system was never justice at all, but pernicious control and calculated fear. I was never taught that for every Martin Luther King Jr., there was a nameless, faceless other who too had sacrificed and yearned for that grand arc to bend a little sooner toward justice.  I was never taught that non-violence and more vituperative protest work in a kind of mutual symbiosis, such that one cannot gain ground without the other. I was never taught that my country’s own collective biography is penned in blood by people who have been written out of its telling.  I was never taught that we did not even grant them the courtesy of a footnote. I had no idea the depths of my own ignorance. I had no idea of myself.

It was not until I specifically became a student in Africana Studies at the University of South Florida that I learned any of this untold history. While I soaked up the knowledge I gained like a sponge, I also realized that the very people who really needed to hear this, the kind of people who will most likely be found in positions of power, were not sitting in the classroom with me. Very few students in Africana Studies courses are white or male. The experience of black people is marginalized in history curricula from the earliest years of education. There is no surprise then that at a university level very few people will have a curiosity about those experiences. This is because people of relative privilege have little clue such an area exists for rigorous intellectual inquiry.  They have never been confronted with the notion that they do not know. They have the choice to remain blissfully unaware of the begrudging, uneasy plate tectonics shifting beneath their feet.

As a child, my mother hung a wooden plaque above our front door. It read,  "In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." I cannot help but wonder how America will ever conserve the lives of the people we have locked in our basement if we cannot admit how they got there, how we will love them if we never attempt to honestly examine ourselves, or how we will begin to understand if we are never taught.

Grappling with history is hard. It is painful and uncomfortable. It takes courage. However, the poor, LGBTQ, women, people of color, and other oppressed groups have no choice but to do this. Grapple they must. As a matter of survival, their very existence is an engagement with this burdensome narrative.  We should all aspire to be as self-aware as our society’s most vulnerable members have no choice but to be. While not as abject, it is equally critical to our own survival that we see America as clearly cracked as they see it. If we want to muster real patriotism we have no choice but to do it. I don’t mean the stuff that makes a market for bumper stickers that read “America: Love it or Leave it.” I mean the kind of patriotism that understands that we have the power, resources and possibility to fix our Fergusons and Eric Garner-style killings, but says right now we just don’t care to do so.

An objective of our education should be for us to see ourselves clearly and squarely, without reservation. Without a genuine effort to do just that, there is no doubt that we will have more Fergusons. They are already there, boiling under the delicate skin of our national myth of exceptionality.  Without it, the stinging question of how “race is even relative” will remain hanging in the dense and ashy air, exerting an unfathomable weight on our national consciousness. Without it, we will continue to leave a lingering trail of black and brown bodies to swell and fry on the hot August pavement, as they lead us back to the very origin of our country, itself. There is an exit. To take it, we must find the will to conserve each other, to love all, to understand intimately, and to be taught what we’ve yet to speak.

By Lauren Richardson

Lauren Richardson is a graduate of the University of South Florida, where she studied International Relations and Africana Studies. Currently, she is a Princeton in Africa Fellow in Gaborone, Botswana where she teaches African History and Development Geography at Maru-a-Pula School.

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