The High Cost of Ignorance


From tulsahistory.org

I have been grappling with the extent of my own ignorance for weeks now. I graduated from an Eastern public high school nationally known for excellence, then earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and later a Masters degree from Southern Connecticut State University. Despite studying history at all three schools, I had never heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. How is that possible?

I’d never heard of Black Wall Street and Tulsa’s affluent black community, the Greenwood District. I did know about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store, because the news about that awful case continued during my childhood. The Tulsa Race Massacre started in a similar way, when a young black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a white woman named Sarah Page. The accounts from that elevator ride varied, yet the Tulsa police arrested Rowland the next day.

Then “An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District” (tulsahistory.org). The next day, Greenwood was looted and burned. “In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died” (Ibid.). According to the New York Times, “The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 killed hundreds of residents, burned more than 1,250 homes and erased years of Black success.” Twenty years ago, the state of Oklahoma published Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, acknowledging $1.8 million in property loss claims — $27 million in today’s dollars. According to the New York Times, “Much bigger is a sobering kind of inheritance: the incalculable and enduring loss of what could have been, and the generational wealth that might have shaped and secured the fortunes of Black children and grandchildren” (Ibid.). Indeed, calling it a riot instead of a massacre may have insulated insurance companies from claims.

The spate of articles, interactive internet pieces, and documentaries acknowledging the hundredth anniversary of this carnage educates us all about this slaughter and the racism that provoked it. This staggering loss of life and property is a tragedy; so is the loss of future opportunity. The dead remain in part uncounted and uncelebrated. The magnitude of this event and its inhumanity haunts me.

Last summer forced me to explore the way this country’s wealth was built on the back of slaves, the inexcusable inequities of wealth and housing and healthcare, and the very real dangers for people of color in their interactions with police. We cannot allow this to continue. If we believe in our country’s Declaration of Independence and truly “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” then we must act to end racism and inequity.

Education is the first step toward making our society fair and just. Only when we learn the truth about our history will we be empowered to change it. I live in Illinois, which just adopted “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards.” Although they only affect preservice teacher training programs and don’t take effect until 2025, they are a baby step in the right direction. The United States of America can only achieve its aspirations for a fair and just society by teaching citizens the ugly truths about our country’s past so that we can build a better future.

Learning from Dr. Seuss

I have been following the controversy over the removal of some books from the catalog of Dr. Seuss by his estate. Some tried to make this a political issue, blaming one party for “cancel culture” efforts. But the decision was made by the caretakers of Seuss’s legacy who determined that his outdated and insensitive depictions of racial, ethnic, and gender differences did not serve readers. Their choice is part of a larger movement to avoid harmful stereotypes and caricatures. “’These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,’ Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in the statement. The business said the decision came after working with a panel of experts, including educators, and reviewing its catalog of titles” [NYTimes].

This is not a new issue, and Dr. Seuss’s work is not alone in facing criticism.  “Children’s publishers and literary estates are trying to walk a delicate line by preserving an author’s legacy, while recognizing and rejecting aspects of a writer’s work that are out of step with current social and cultural values” [NYTimes]. Roald Dahl was criticized for racist and anti-Semitic portrayals. Richard Scarry’s illustrated books often promoted archaic gender roles and racial stereotypes [Ibid.], and many have since been revised. The Tintin and Babar serieshave been removed from many children’s sections in libraries for their colonialist and imperialist viewpoints. Such re-evaluations may become more common as we grow our own understanding of their potential negative impact of these portrayals and of the need for readers to see themselves reflected positively in what they read.

For me this controversy raises two key issues for Language Arts teachers in public schools. The first is whether we should ban books containing offensive material or choose to teach them in context, helping readers recognize their bias and its potential impact. While I think the latter approach is valuable for older high school students, its success depends on the ability and sensitivity of teachers to manage that, a tough call. When I taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my students and I spent time exploring the accusations of racism against Mark Twain, the use of the N-word and how to navigate that in reading aloud and in writing, and the relative depiction of white and black characters in the novel. I’d like to think I did a good job of facilitating that exploration, but I occasionally had one or two students of color in my class, and I feared they were made uncomfortable. For younger students, however, I am convinced that the potential negative impact of unhelpful portrayals makes them unacceptable. For younger readers I would limit those books that promote stereotypes.

For me a second question comes up about the literary canon, the literature widely considered to be the best and most worth teaching and handing down from generation to generation. What books should be included? I confess I taught mostly dead white male authors far too much of the time. That’s what our textbooks contained, and the curriculum focused on these “classics.” I supplemented where I could, when I could, but it wasn’t until later in my career that I was able to include more female authors, more authors of color, and more contemporary authors.

Dead white male authors dominate the literary canon, even today. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Why not keep some of their works that offer an opportunity to explore the big questions: What does it mean to be a human being? To live a good life? What are our obligations to each other? And so on … But then why not give some of those books up and instead add works by women and BIPOC authors? Their perspectives can widen and enrich our world views and address those questions as well, and more of our readers may then see themselves in the works they read. That approach is long overdue.