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An Inconvenient Fourth of July

Jesse-Williams-BET-Awards-696x430      4fred16m

A friend of mine recently asked me if teachers have a responsibility to instill optimism and nurture positive, patriotic viewpoints in one’s students. He followed up the question with a statement that trailed off, “I don’t know if there is much to be optimistic about anymore…” 

The Fourth of July offers us a vital yet inconvenient time to reflect on the American promise. Vital in that all citizens, and especially educators, must confront the realities of a nation where overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers of African American students are educated in high poverty schools, receive harsher disciplinary treatment than their White classmates, and struggle to survive in communities that lack necessary access to healthy foods, medical care, and options for physical activity. Michelle Alexander’s brilliant work, The New Jim CrowMass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnesspresents us with the devastating results of the War on Drugs and details the contemporary systems of racial control operating in our country. This reflective process is inconvenient on the Fourth of July, of course, when we are enjoying our neighborhood parades and partaking in our annual rituals of eating, drinking, and firework viewing. Inconvenient as we acknowledge the progress that has been made in regards to racial equality while feeling outraged at the overt (and concealed) racism and horrifying violence that continues to afflict African Americans 240 years after our nation’s birth. 

Watching (and rewatching, and rewatching, and rereading) Jesse Williams’ BET Humanitarian of the Year Award acceptance speech returned me to thoughts about the Fourth of July. Williams, the teacher turned actor turned activist, celebrated the courageous work of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and articulated the need for a totally restructured society, one free of police brutality and exploitation. 

The inspiring Williams has been aptly compared to Harry Belafonte: the actor and singer of the 1960s who brought attention and funding to Civil Rights Movement organizations, and who continues to be an ardent social activist. However, when watching Williams’ magnificent address and call to action, I was instead reminded of Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning Of July Fourth For The Negro”

Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist leader of the 19th Century, was asked to give a speech to an anti-slavery society on July 4th, 1852. Douglass spoke to the hypocrisy of the holiday and questioned his very invitation to speak. Closely examining both speeches provides us (and our students) an opportunity to inconveniently assess our current American reality on the eve of our nation’s birthday. 

The UC Berkeley History Social Science Project offers learning templates to help students access primary source material. The Zinn Education Project provides the Douglass speech transcript and invites viewers to watch Danny Glover and James Earl Jones perform readings of the speech as part of the celebrated Voices of A People’s History and “The People Speak.” The Southern Poverty Law Center‘s education division, Teaching Tolerance, has constructed resources to support teachers as they introduce The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to their students.

To return to my friend’s question: I do not subscribe to a narrative of American exceptionalism in my U.S. History courses. I am, however, optimistic. I absolutely believe that the classroom is a sacred space for change. When we provide students opportunities to critically evaluate historic and contemporary sources (and our celebrated American traditions), they develop valuable skills to become engaged social activists and agents for positive change. 

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Meg Honey, Sojourn to the Past’s Director of Communications, is an AP U.S. History teacher at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, California. In addition, she serves as a Lecturer in the Kalmanovitz School of Education at Saint Mary’s College of California.

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