Racial monologues inspire the teaching of history

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Each year to celebrate February’s educational Black History Month, a group of people I know produce a public reading of anecdotes and short stories that have to do with race relations – how they themselves have been affected or how they have affected others regarding race.

The submissions are declaimed anonymously by readers who have practiced the stories assigned to them. It is good theater as it dramatizes through real-life stories the practical reasons why and how racial prejudice is a killer, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually. It is an intense evening, with stories of the first time a young boy is called by the N-word, or when a very religious mother tells her daughter that she can’t invite her favorite twins from school to her birthday party; they are, after all, black, and she isn’t. The stories usually end with, “I was changed forever.”

Black history is U.S. history, as is all the history of all the others who have come to this country. Everyone who is here has a history that has contributed to the whole of us. I like the idea of teaching it all, all the time – Mexican-Puerto Rican-Latin American-South American, Irish, Filipino, Iranian, Israeli, Palestinian, Japanese, German, French . . . even Norwegian. Those who fled Europe because of war, famine, religious persecution, or just because they wanted to, need their European history taught – not just how much the European countries contributed to our culture but why exactly they left that culture. And then there is the whole rest of the world whose many members have fled here; their history –the persecution as well as the culture — needs to be taught, too.

The two groups whose stories most need to be told year after year, again and again, are Native Americans and African Americans. One group was here when we came, and we decimated them to get their land; the other group we enslaved and brought here on boats to make us rich.

The residue of horror and tired resentment of these two groups versus the feelings of regret, shame and that strange hatred we humans can place on those we’ve hurt is a toxic mix of centuries worth of anger from them and guilt from the rest of us, all of which results in a dual prejudice that roils and boils both ways.

Those whose ancestors came here of their own free will — often because they were nearly dead from persecution or would be if they stayed — are first-order hypocrites to dismiss not only new immigrants fleeing demonic leaders but the Indians we murdered and the Africans we bought and subjugated.

Like most of us, I have friends of different nationalities and complexions, and sometimes I can’t believe they talk to me at all.

Perhaps your high school schedules programs during Black History Month or during Asian and Hispanic Heritage months. Maybe your college offered courses in Black, Latino, Caribbean, Native American, Asian or ethnic studies. These are good places to start, but why relegate to separate months, or one-semester classes, the real history of this country? If we don’t learn it, we will never get over it, the horrible divide; we will be vague about the “Black problem” or the “immigration problem.”

Impatient with it; we will live in bubbles that when they get popped shock us: What is wrong with them, why are they burning their own neighborhoods? What is wrong with them, why are they trashing their own stores with graffiti? What is wrong with them, why are they sneaking across illegally when they could come legally? What is wrong with them, what are they raising a fist at or kneeling about now?

If you don’t know the answers, you need history. In Germany, home of the biggest genocide ever recorded, teaching about the Holocaust and the Nazi era is mandatory in schools, a part of the curriculum. Their theory is that it is important to teach what prejudice is and what it can bring, to show what ferocious effect prejudicial thinking in general has on all of us, those who practice discrimination and those who are discriminated against for reasons of skin color, religion, race or background.

Teaching a total history, inclusive of all that we’ve done good and bad, all who’ve lived here for eons, all who’ve come here willingly or not, all of the American experience – what’s difficult about this?

If we don’t know all of our history – not just the good parts where we are taught that we spread democracy and save the world – my fear is that without the humility that honesty brings, we will continue as we are right now, month by month and year by year more deeply mired in a divisiveness that comes straight from ignorance of ourselves and others.

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