Before George Floyd, before the coronavirus pandemic, Chicago students started learning America’s real history.
Not the whitewashed history, the disjointed one that jumps from European settlers “finding” America, to a sanitized version of slavery, to the Civil Rights Movement and finally to a seemingly racism-free present time.
No, the real history.
The one with white people having picnics to celebrate lynchings. The history of powerful black resistance music and art. The one with dismembered body parts displayed in storefronts and black perseverance and success through oppression.
Black America’s history — America’s real history.
The civil unrest in the days since Floyd’s killing hasn’t only been a protest of yet another black man’s death at the hands of the police. It’s a rebuke of the 400 years leading up to Floyd’s undignified suffocation on a Minneapolis street.
Those hundreds of years of American history are tucked into the New York Times Magazine’s acclaimed “1619 Project” that has been taught in Chicago Public Schools since the fall.
They’re the same 400 years of oppression that led a young African American student in Chicago to tell his classmates this week: “I don’t want to grow up to be a black man.”
‘Black people are not responsible for their own death’
In early March, four black teenagers sat in a circle in a computer lab at the Far South Side’s Brooks College Preparatory Academy to talk about race.
They walked through all they had learned the past few months about where black Americans had been and where they could still go. Until this year, it was a conversation they weren’t fully equipped to hold.
Brenton Sykes, for one, had thought Americans should move on from talking about slavery.
Asia Reid hadn’t been mature enough to take the issues seriously.
Aisha Carothers would have wanted to be spared the harsh details as a younger child.
Arterah Griggs felt she was misled about black history in middle school.
Yet there they were, 16- and 17-year-olds, juniors and seniors in high school, having just learned America’s brutal truth in an AP U.S. History class taught through the “1619 Project,” an unrelenting view of their intertwined past and present.
“In middle school they talked about slavery, but it was ‘Christopher Columbus, he found us,’” Arterah says. “Now I read this and I know he didn’t. We were the founding fathers. We put so much into the U.S. and we made the foundation.”
The worst Asia remembers learning about American racism was whites kicking black people off the bus because they weren’t allowed to sit in the front.
“I’ve never been taught about where I came from, and it’s really refreshing to see this,” she says. “Even if it’s not a good story, it’s something I need to know.”
“Now that I’m aware of the full history of America without it being whitewashed or anything,” Brenton says, “it kind of makes me see things in a different light. I feel like I have to carry myself better because I have what my ancestors went through.”
Aisha draws a connection from slavery directly to disparagement of black accomplishments today.
“It’s easy now to say, ‘Oh, black people, their businesses are bad.’ Or, ‘Black people, they don’t prosper,’” she says. “But when we’re looking at magazines like this, we can see, ‘OK, well now I know why.’ But then that’s really not truth because black people are successful in a lot of ways and they’re overcoming a lot of oppression and discrimination even after slavery.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times writer who led the creation of the 1619 Project and last month won a Pulitzer Prize for her commentary, said in an interview with the Sun-Times the “why” of how America’s racist society operates is “incredibly empowering for children.”
“That it is not simply that black people are more criminal, or black people are deserving of the treatment they have,” Hannah-Jones says, “but that we have a system, and systems, that were set up that have led us to have a fundamentally unfair society.
“And I think that knowledge is very empowering. It explains why people are taking to the streets. It explains the anger. And it shows that black people are not responsible for their own death.”
‘America can be very, very cruel’
Abbey Davis is a fifth grader at Linné Elementary in the Avondale neighborhood. She’s a white student learning about racism from a white social studies teacher who has used the “1619 Project” in class and is dedicated to showing students the connection between slavery and modern-day racism.
“I’ve learned about how America became America,” Abbey says. “I’ve learned that white people have treated African Americans so poorly.
“It’s really unfair. Because I think everyone should be treated the same no matter what they look like or believe in.”
Abbey says she knew of the existence of slavery but little else about the history of American racism before this year. Even through the coronavirus school closures, her teacher, Mary Kovats, is discussing the civil rights movement. This week, Kovats says her students made the connection between today’s protests and the civil unrest in the 1950s and 60s.
“When I was growing up, if things were difficult, we’d try to shield children from it,” Kovats says. “You can’t. Monday morning we couldn’t just start class and say, ‘OK, everybody, turn to your project.’ We had to talk about it. And really uncomfortable comments come up.
“It’s conversations that are difficult, but I have to let the kids have them. And I’m glad that it’s being forced but I hate that they have to live through this.”
It was in Kovats’ class that a black student said he didn’t want to grow up to be a black man.
“One white boy said, ‘Well, you just have to make sure when you’re outside, you’re calm. And when you see the police, you put your hands up and you don’t say anything to them.’ And the African American boy, rightfully so, said, ‘Yeah, do you have to do that, too?’ His anger was visible, and I had to let him do it.”
Lionel Kimble, an associate professor of history at Chicago State University, says black students are better able to understand this history of slavery and racism because they live it every day.
“So many black kids deal with trauma already just for being a black kid in America,” Kimble says. “No matter how much they want to be children and do the things children do, many of them have to face the racial realities of the country probably way earlier than they’re ready for.”
Kimble says white parents and teachers who benefit from white privilege have a responsibility to recognize it, understand it and teach their kids and students about it.
“Don’t be guilty for being white, just don’t make the same mistakes in the past,” he says. “Is there a role for white allies? Yeah, there’s always a role for white allies. White allies have access to places sometimes we can’t go.
“If a black female teacher goes to white parents talking about this stuff, it’s, ‘There she is, she’s just an angry black woman.’ But if the ‘conscious, woke’ white teacher talks to the white parents, the message may be received in very different ways.”
Asked if it’s important to learn about racism, Abbey says, “To me it is. Because then I can talk to people about history. Then we can have a conversation.
“I think racism is still out there,” Abbey says, though she thinks it isn’t as bad as decades ago. “It’s making me think a little bit differently about America. America can be very, very cruel.”
‘They assume I’m Mexican because of how I look’
It’s a Thursday morning in late February when Niamh Burke stands next to an image of a minstrel.
Burke is a white sixth grade teacher in Gage Park on the Southwest Side. Her school, Sawyer Elementary, is 98% Latino — and there aren’t any black students in this class.
There are two items on the agenda for Burke’s social studies period: Discussing stereotypes and appropriation, and examining black music through an episode of the 1619 Project’s audio series.
Burke walks her students through the history and offensiveness of minstrels and the use of black face. She discusses cultural appropriation by explaining the difference between eating tacos and wearing a sombrero for Cinco de Mayo. She points out how appropriation is systemically accepted by major institutions, such as sports teams with Native American caricature mascots.
“I think it’s very important for me as a white educator teaching students of color to try to give them the tools to talk about their own experience,” Burke says. She helps kids draw from their own experiences to discuss oppression of other people of color.
“That can be an uncomfortable discussion and they are very young,” Burke says. “But I worry about our education system that doesn’t always value culturally responsive teaching. It kind of takes away people’s power to talk about their own experience and it also is a disservice to students in helping them understand and empathize with others.”
Esmeralda Blanco, an 11-year-old sitting at the front of Burke’s class, starts writing examples of stereotypes used against her. Identifying outsiders’ preconceptions — and recognizing they exist at all — helps Esmeralda start to think about how to combat stereotypes against others.
“They assume I’m Mexican because of how I look & because I communicate to my mom in Spanish,” Esmeralda writes in her notes. “And because I’m a girl they think I cry ... and I fight like a girl and I ‘love’ pink.”
“It teaches you things back then and how people of color were treated,” Esmeralda says. “People are still treated like that because of their race or color or appearance. But thankfully it’s not as much as it was back then.”
'We are a resilient people'
Asia, one of the black students at Brooks, sees how her grandmother distrusts white people.
“My grandma, if a white person comes by that she doesn’t know, she’ll lock the door,” Asia says. “Or she’ll put me behind her because she’s just so scared.”
Aisha sees how the Tuskegee experiment, when researchers in the 1940s discovered a drug to treat syphilis and didn’t give it to black patients with the disease, affects current-day black life.
“It still directly connects to how black people have fears of going to the doctor,” she says. “And we see that in our own homes today.”
Brenton has a better understanding of blackface and how widely consumed it was in entertainment.
“I knew there was blackface, but I didn’t know it was to that extent, like Madison Square Garden, sold-out type of thing,” Brenton says. “It’s just weird to see how people were able to dehumanize the race so much and do that type of thing without feeling any type of remorse.”
Arterah believes the black struggle is the human struggle.
“Black people kind of set the tone for a lot of minority groups, like gays and immigrants,” she says. “Black people are the source because they are the primary people of injustices.”
The four Brooks students hadn't connected with that history until this year. Now they draw those comparisons to their lives today.
Teaching an accurate history of America links black kids with their ancestors’ struggle and perseverance, Hannah-Jones says, and helps white people understand that their idealized version of America doesn’t exist.
“I don’t know that a place like Chicago is ready to take on segregated housing, segregated schools, and those larger structural issues that lead to so much disadvantage,” Hannah-Jones says. “But I’ll also say, if you don’t understand the architecture that created and maintained them, then we certainly won’t. So that knowledge has to come first.
“The generation before me feels like they are reliving what happened,” Hannah-Jones says of the Floyd protests, “and clearly feel [disillusioned] about how, all these years later, can the country be looking exactly like it did when we thought we fought these battles already.
“That’s just the black experience. The black experience is an experience of constant struggle. And if there’s one thing that is true, it’s that we are a resilient people.”