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Our Histories Are Not Created Equal

Feb 26 2016
Why Americans should be upfront with our kids—and ourselves—about how power and privilege shaped our backgrounds.

My daughter’s fourth-grade class recently spent several weeks researching its family histories. Each student chose one country from their background for a “heritage project,” and then presented what they learned at a lunch where many parents brought their culture’s food to share.

This is a great project…for those of us who have straightforward “heritages” and plenty of information about our family history. My husband’s and my families came here from northern Europe, and my daughter enjoyed learning about our histories. A heritage project is a far more complicated assignment, though, for kids with little knowledge of their ancestry. That includes some who have been adopted as well as many black Americans, a large proportion of whom do not know their families’ origins before they were trafficked and enslaved.

In this country, our heritages are not all created equal.

At the heritage lunch, several black students shared research on states rather than countries, presenting posters on Michigan and California, for instance. I wondered, had they been given the option to select an African country like the Ivory Coast or Ghana, even if they did not know their origins for sure? I also worried about how my daughter and the rest of her class would view these projects. Without any clarification, they could assume some kids researched states instead of countries by mistake. If the teachers had not discussed the issue with the class, these students had been made to look like they had done the assignment wrong, albeit unintentially. And beyond that confusion, silently grouping all these “heritage projects” together skips over the opportunity to educate students about our country’s checkered past—and the legacy it leaves today.

Our collective American heritage is neither simple nor neat. White people like me can easily forget this. In my daughter’s class, it was possible that the ancestors the white students researched and celebrated were among those who ripped the black students’ ancestors from their homelands. This is a hard truth, but one that black American kids know well, even as young as 8 and 9. We need to help all the others grapple with it, too.

I followed up with my daughter’s teacher, sending what I hoped was a polite email. I thanked her for assigning the project and then asked how those who did not know their histories had been directed and whether the difference in projects had been explained to everyone else. Sure enough, she recognized the complexity of assigning this kind of research when students across backgrounds have varying levels of knowledge and help at home. She assured me that the students who chose states were very excited about their reports and that each one felt a connection to the state they chose. I followed up to suggest the entire class could have benefitted from considering the experience many black students have in this type of assignment and the historical reasons for that. The following week, I was encouraged to hear from my daughter that the class discussed forced migration and black heritage in the US at length before their field trip to the African American History Museum.

Related Topics:History; Racism; U.S. History
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