There is nothing I hate more than people who try to use the law to change the facts of history or science. I hate when Creationists try to take their Sunday School teachings into science class. I hate when Confederates try to retell the “War of Northern Aggression” in a way that ignores the abject racism that started the entire conflict. And I hate when parents sue because history textbooks aren’t sanitized to include enough bunny rabbits and rainbows when they are educating children about slavery.
That last thing is new. I only realized parents like this existed when I read a story in the Macomb Daily (gavel bang: ABA Journal). Apparently an African-American parent got angry over “outrageous statements” in a textbook used in his daughter’s class. The outrage: the textbook used the n-word… in the context of teaching children about the history of slavery in this country.
He claims his daughter was traumatized by the book, and he’s seeking more than $25,000 damages from the school.
Please God, let’s hope he doesn’t get it. Everybody should be “traumatized” by slavery when they first hear about it in grade school. It was a goddamn traumatic thing to put people through. And we can’t live in a world where that trauma is banished from our history books….
Here’s something I thought every African-American parent already knew: learning about black history in America is trauma, at least if it’s done right. There’s no way to avoid being exposed to horribly disturbing things that happened to your ancestors if you want to know about your history. Those are just the facts.
When I was maybe nine years old, my parents made me watch Roots. Have you ever seen Roots? It’s ten hours of the Reading Rainbow guy getting beaten and tortured. The Reading Rainbow guy! They cut off his foot. It’s awful.
Around the same age, my parents also made me watch Eyes on the Prize. That’s a PBS miniseries about the civil rights movement. No, not the one about chilling on the Washington Mall while Dr. King tells us about his nice dream. Not the Disney-fied version of the civil rights movement. The terrifying, “wait, the cops where the ones beating the crap out of us” part of the civil rights movement. Again, it’s freaking terrifying. How can people do that to other people just because of the color of their skin? It makes no sense now, and I’m 32 years old! When I was 9 it made no sense, and things that make no sense to nine-year-old kids usually result in nightmares and terror until… well, I’m still waiting for that magical day where I see a cop and I don’t consider the possibility that he might beat the crap our of me for no reason.
And that’s the point. Parents expose children to this stuff because knowing what happened in the past is essential to understanding what is happening in the present. Schools expose children of all races to this stuff for the same reason. In fact, many African-Americans have fought to force schools to teach children about this stuff. For far too long, schools sought to ignore or sanitize this crucial part of American history — to the disservice of children of all races.
And now this parent, Jamey Petree, wants to come along and overturn all of that hard work? Because his daughter had a hysterical reaction to what she was hearing — a reaction that really should be everybody’s reaction when they first learn about this. Here’s what Petree objects to:
Jamey Petree, representing Jala Petree, says that excerpts from “From Slave Ship to Freedom Road” were read last January by Jala’s fifth-grade teacher at Margaret Black Elementary School in Sterling Heights.
Two excerpts each two paragraphs long that were read include N-word references and compares African-Americans’ skin color to “Satan’s thoughts” and night darkness. The excerpts talk about the buying and selling of slaves.
What does this guy want? That’s what people said about African-Americans back in the day. No lawsuit is going to change that. So what the hell is the upside of having little Jala grow up blissfully ignorant of that history? I mean, we’re talking about an 11-year-old girl here, not an infant. By 11, black kids have heard “the N-word” before. Does Mr. Petree really want his daughter thinking the word was invented by 50 Cent?
Petree’s legal arguments are beyond ridiculous:
The school district violated the state Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by inflicting “intentional racial discrimination, disparate treatment and/or outcome, racial harassment, (and) hostile environment,” the lawsuit says. The district also intentionally inflicted “emotional distress, racial discrimination and racial harassment” as well as “retaliation for refusing to acquiesce” in committing those acts, the lawsuit says.
The actions “have proximately affected the conditions of learning duties and the advantages of her further education, and seriously affected her mental and emotional well-being, past, present and future.”
Wait, so black people are affected differently by the history of slavery… and therefore they can’t be told about it? Is that the world Petree wants to live in? Yeah, that’ll be great, let’s live in a world where only white people get to learn about slavery and black people are kept ignorant about the issue, except for what their white friends tell them on the playground. That’ll be brilliant. Maybe in 40 years “slavery” can be “that time when white people took care of black people and black people worked really hard to help white people out.”
The proximate cause of Jala’s distress isn’t the school district or the textbook. It’s the institution of slavery itself. Sometimes, my white friends have a hard time understanding this concept, but the institution of slavery — though long dead — still has a very real impact on African-Americans (and really America as a whole). Slavery is the proximate cause of a lot of racial distress even today. You just can’t enslave an entire people for hundreds of years, release them (sorry, I meant “fight a bloody war to keep them enslaved, lose, and then erect an entire legal structure to keep them held back), and then say “my bad, we cool?” It doesn’t work like that.
And you need look no further than the reaction of a little girl who is first told what the hell happened to her family and ancestors to see the modern-day consequences of that evil institution. Damn straight it’s going to “seriously affect her mental and emotional well-being, past, present and future.” It’s part of being black in America. It’s hearing a bunch of people say “we should look at the original intent of the founders,” remembering exactly what kind of slave-holding/slave-buying/slave-raping a**holes the founders were, and then responding, “Naw, I’m going to have to go with a living document on that one. For the first 100 years or so, the Constitution was a piece of crap.”
Somehow this father thinks that excluding a few words and phrases from a textbook is going to protect his daughter from all of that? Think again, buddy. There is no law, there is no court, there are no damages that can wipe clean the stain of slavery from this country or from your daughter’s experiences (btw: this is why reparations are dumb). You need to teach her how to deal with what happened, because she’s not going to be able to make it very far pretending things like slavery and the N-word never existed.
You forgive. You cope. You move on. You don’t ever forget.