In February, when the Senate was in the midst of voting to confirm now U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, I wrote this column about an initiative that some were crediting him for and some blaming him for: the development of a mandated course on what critics call “race theory,” what I used to publish and write about under the heading “multiculturalism,” but what I would now call “non white supremacist propagandized history” or “corrective history.”
Three months ago, when this article was published by Hearst Connecticut Media, our country’s Secretary of Education was merely Connecticut Commissioner of Education Cardona. The article focuses on how the newly minted African American/Latino studies course was, and currently still is, being piloted at a few high schools in the state, including Henry Abbott Technical High School in Danbury. Piloting will continue next year before the final version the curriculum is made available online and teachers are offered training for the elective year-long course, which must be offered as an elective at every Connecticut public high school starting in Fall 2022.
Writing this column took me back to the early 2000s when I was working to create a suite of educational web sites for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on African American, Latino, and American Indian studies that included primary-document focused lesson plans, very similar to the modules and resources currently being developed by Connecticut’s State Education Resource Center (SERC).
As I wrote my column we were all only a few weeks removed from the release of former President Trump’s 1776 Commission Report, a bizarrely ahistorical document that attributes the birth of “identity politics” to John C. Calhoun, a pro-slavery politician so villainous that … just a few years ago some of the very same far-right thought leaders who wrote the commission report were vehemently arguing that Calhoun’s name should retain its honored perch atop educational buildings and such. Sometimes I marvel at the mental flexibility and audacity of the far right> Their maneuvering capability calls to mind the kind of car ads aimed at a late night Fox News viewer.
There are still many who recount to the meta narrative of America as a story of victimless conquest. Great valor, bravery, innovation, and industry to tame a wilderness devoid of any violence against previous occupants, nations or civilizations who might represent a valid claim of sovereignty. An economy somehow built on strenuous white pioneer labor and not centuries of slavery and abusive immigrant labor practices. A land devoid of pogroms and race-based massacre, treaty violations and so on. It is a myth central to the identity of a significant portion of our fellow citizens, and like all mythologies conceived to perpetuate violence and obscure injustice, it is a corrosive, destructive vine that kills the very host it clings to.
Many of the Connecticut educators and students who testified on behalf of Public Act 19-12, during the lead up to the bill’s passing, argued that merely adding an elective would not be enough to counteract the false narrative of America. Black history and Latino history should not be viewed as additional subplots, tagged onto the same old story of American history. Instead these narratives should be seen as necessary revisions, needed to complete the story. American history stripped of the teaching of events and accomplishments, injustices and triumphs of whole communities, races and genders that have always been present and part of the story, is simply an incomplete outline of a fairy tale, a dangerous one that perpetuates a biased, ahistorical understanding of our current reality. And in case you think that the remarkable student who traveled to Hartford to speak to legislators did not make such eloquent and powerful claims, take a look at the first half of “Making History: The Creation of a Statewide Black and Latino Course of Studies.”
I learned about so much well hidden U.S. history back when as I was working on those educational web sites. We called it the product line the American Mosaic, but the longer I worked on each of its components – African American, Latino, American Indian, we were poised to begin development on an Asian American site when I left in 2008 – the more convinced I became that “mosaic” was not the proper metaphor at all. If an elaborate mosaic is missing a tile or two, the viewer can still make out the overall form and intent of the artist. I think a tapestry may be a better metaphor to describe American history.
Drop one thread and the whole thing begins to lose its shape; you can try to hold it together for a time with just a few dominant stitches – history from a perspective that glorifies European conquest and colonialism, that ignores the injustices faced by women, immigrants, workers, religious and racial minorities, the damaging legacy of slavery, genocide and colonialism, for example – but the garment will eventually fail to maintain its shape, it will begin to fragment as its flaws, its dropped stitches, its missing segments become more gaping and obvious. The whole will not hold together, and eventually it will come to pieces in your hands.
It’s the work of scholars, educators, journalists, to restore the missing fragments, to weave the ragged edges back into a strong and useful whole.