My Turn: Only the truth will set us free

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Published: 3/16/2023 5:03:49 PM

Originally attributed to John 8:32 quoting Jesus, and borrowed by everyone from Gloria Steinem — “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” — to Fred Rogers, who composed a song titled, “The Truth Will Make Me Free,” the phrase underlies our conviction that teaching the truth about America will strengthen us as a nation and lead to a just and equitable society.

What if, as Jason Stanley said in the Guardian in February, “the German far right passed laws forbidding schools from teaching about the sins of Nazism, on the grounds that such teaching does in fact cause anguish and guilt among German children, the world would not stand for it for one moment.”

As we watch those who motivate by fear seeking to undo the teaching of American history, in all its glory and tragedies, we want to ponder what there is to be gained from offering school curriculum that introduces students, at developmentally appropriate ages, to that which we can be proud of and that which we need to be accountable for that has harmed millions of people.

Here’s what Black people gain when their history, in all its richness, is seen as essential to knowing our American story.

First and foremost is a sense of empowerment — a belief that what Black people have withstood, have overcome and have accomplished is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Knowing that there were highly developed societies in Africa, that those who were kidnapped developed myriad ways of surviving indescribably horrific mistreatment; that in spite of the Black Codes, Jim Crow, and the enormous wealth gap, which is 8.5 to 1 nationally and $248,000 to $8 in Boston, their forebears and those who came after enslavement ended have shown exemplary resilience, creativity and grit that resulted in unique contributions to this nation in every arena.

Then, there’s identity, which is shaped by one’s knowledge along with one’s circumstances. Armed with clarity about those individuals one gets to study who made extraordinary efforts to escape from enslavement, to fight for the rights of enslaved and free people, who created movements to cement rights into laws, and who suffered irreparable harm throughout our history confirms one’s birthright as a citizen of this country.

Additionally, once the struggles of other groups are studied — immigrants, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups, there can be a drive for unity in the quest to attain justice and equality for all.

What does such awareness and knowledge do for one’s self-esteem? And what does not knowing do to a child’s self-concept? Without knowing one’s origin story, one’s history and one’s heroes/sheroes, young Black people flounder and think less of themselves and their people. This cannot be allowed to continue.

What do white people gain from knowing the full scope of this country’s past and present? As white men this is near and dear to us, and here are the many ways our young people and all Americans benefit:

■They will be able to understand and appreciate the ways in which our country has both helped and harmed people, especially Black people.

■Thus, instead of the guilt and shame that the fearmongers predict, empathy and compassion will result from greater knowledge and understanding — we’ll embrace our multiracial democracy, not destroy it.

■They will learn how to live in a diverse society.

■They will realize that there have been great harms done by white supremacy, along with great strides, but that much remains to be acknowledged and redressed.

■They will gain insight into the need for reparations, affirmative action, integrated schools and communities, and other programs that seek to level the playing field that has historically been so uneven — the cause of intergenerational trauma — resulting in a tragically enormous wealth gap as well as huge inequities in every aspect of our society.

■They will be able to identify white privilege, renounce it in all its forms and work to shed it, personally and societally, thereby having it become what all people deserve as rights.

■They will learn how to discern the difference between truth and lies about our history, understanding that the lies are still being told, too often to instill fear by becoming media literate.

Were the teaching of our true history to become widespread, as a country we would be able to see that we are not exceptional, but rather simply another nation that keeps trying to live up to its ideals. Then, we will be able to celebrate what we’ve accomplished.

Ignorance is not an option if we are to achieve liberty and justice for all, and our multiracial democracy is going to survive and thrive. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Allen J. Davis of Dublin, New Hampshire, is a member of Racial Justice Rising’s Coordinating Committee and former executive director of the GCC Foundation and the United Way of Franklin County. Tom Weiner of Northampton is a teacher of 40 years at the Smith College Lab School and a lifelong racial justice activist and author.


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