THURSDAY, JUNE 10, 2021
Menstrual cycles, lost eyes: Long ago and far away, we took over the daily instruction of a fifth grade class, right here in Baltimore.
We were still 21 at the time. We'd been hired as part of a long-standing intern program, in which college graduates were given an eight-week crash course as student teachers, then installed as full-time teachers.
The program existed because Baltimore had never been able to fill its teaching roster with fully certified teachers. We spent eight weeks in the East Baltimore sixth-grade classroom of NAME WITHHELD, then took over our own fifth grade class in November, replacing a day-to-day substitute teacher who seemed like a very nice guy.
It was November 1969. As almost anyone can imagine, we had very little idea what we were doing.
Over the next dozen years, we spent nine full years as a classroom teacher in Baltimore—seven years teaching fifth grade (plus some sixth-graders), two years teaching junior high math.
Questions concerning American history did arise. Around the time the TV program Roots appeared, a group of thoroughly decent kids gave voice to a memorable question.
Their question concerned the institution of slavery. The question they asked was this:
How could anyone have been willing to do that?
How could anyone have been willing to do that? these extremely good kids now asked.
They were asking a sensible question. We're fairly sure that we recall the gist of the conversation which followed. We stressed the fact that, while we were willing to share our own opinion about that question, it was only our opinion, and they would have to develop their own opinions and views in the years ahead.
Also, they should listen to their parents or guardians first. We were just their fifth-grade teacher. Their parents or guardians were their most important people. We were willing to tell them what we thought, but their parents or guardians came first.
These thoughts were triggered by reading the comments to Kevin Drum's new post, How Should We Teach History? After offering a somewhat puzzling framework, Kevin asked readers to opine on how American history should be taught at different grade levels.
(Why puzzling? One commenter wrote this: "The scale implies that teaching history necessarily involves persuading kids to accept value judgements about the 'greatness' of America at one end, or its 'sinfulness' at the other. That's a deeply flawed frame of analysis.")
Back to the mid-1970s! What should those fifth-grade kids have been told about American history? About the institution of slavery? About the sensible question they asked?
The TV show Roots had portrayed many things, but it hadn't portrayed every thing. In proposing a "national conversation on race," Michele Norris has suggested that we adults should spend decades discussing pretty much every thing, not excluding such things as those which are detailed below.
We're not saying that Norris is wrong in what she's proposed. We're merely presenting specifics:
NORRIS (6/6/21): We can read about, watch and praise documentaries and Hollywood projects about the Civil War, or read countless volumes on the abolitionist or civil rights movements. But these are all at a remove from the central horror of enslavement itself. From the kidnappings in Africa to the horrors of the Middle Passage, the beatings and the instruments of bondage, the separation of families, the culture of rape, the abuse of children, the diabolical rationalizations and crimes against humanity—no, we haven’t had that conversation. We have not had that unflinching assessment, and we are long overdue.
Imagine traveling through an American state and coming upon small, embedded memorials that listed key facts about the lives of the enslaved. Their names. Their fates. Their birth dates. The number of times they were sold. The ways they were separated from their families. The conditions of their toil. Imagine how that might shape the way we comprehend the peculiar institution of slavery, its legacy and its normalized trauma.
I also find it deeply ironic that there is such a fierce battle to evade and erase historical teachings about slavery because, in the time of enslavement, there was such an assiduous effort to document and catalogue every aspect of that institution, much in the way people now itemize, assess and insure their valuables. The height, weight, skin color, teeth, hair texture, work habits and scars that might help identify anyone who dared flee were documented. Their teeth, their work habits, their menstrual cycles and their windows of fertility—because producing more enslaved people produced more wealth—were entered like debits and credits in enslavers’ ledgers.
[Professor Daina] Berry compares the sale of two “first rate prime males” named Guy and Andrew sold in 1859 at what was believed to be the largest auction in U.S. history. They were the same age and size and had similar skills. Andrew sold for $1,040, while Guy elicited a larger sum of $1,280. The difference was that Andrew had lost a right eye. A newspaper reporter covering that two-day auction in 1859 noted that the value of a Black man’s right eye in the South was $240.
[S]lavery cannot be an optional part of the national story. It should not be excised from the narrative we teach our children about who we are and what we have become.
We must admit to, examine, reflect, lean into and grow through that history. All of that history.
In truth, the history can get worse—can get more brutal, more "inhuman"—than anything Norris lists. But she does list quite a few things, mixed with expressions of anger at the way we modern Amerikans have behaved, by which she apparently seems to mean everyone but herself.
Norris' national conversation would start at the White House level. It would be aimed at adults, but she mentions children as well.
At the end of her essay, in the last passage posted above, she almost seems to say that we should teach schoolchildren all of that history. Whether we're speaking of children or speaking of adults, does that proposal make sense?
Those fifth-graders, way back when, had an excellent question: How could anyone have done that?
They weren't asking a rhetorical question. They were genuinely puzzled by what they'd seen, by the things they knew. They genuinely wanted to know.
At the time, they hadn't heard about the itemization of the menstrual cycles, or about the price of one eye. Today, Norris seems to be saying that we should spend decades discussing all that.
(We'll admit that we sometimes wonder how many decades we should spend discussing the behavior of Norris and her highly successful, upper-end colleagues over the past several decades. But that is plainly a separate question, one for a whole different era.)
Should those fifth-graders, way back then, have been told about every atrocity? They read books about Frederick Douglass, their fellow Baltimorean, and about Harriett Tubman, who had lived on their state's Eastern Shore. Should they have been told vastly more?
(During the bicentennial year, one of our students, NAME WITHHELD, exchanged letters with a pen pal out in Westwood about a book she'd just read about Douglass. The pen pal may have been the daughter of UCLA professors. "You must be very proud to be growing up in the city where such a great man lived," that excellent kid wrote back.)
We also recall the way a few of the girls read about Florence Nightingale. One of those girls, the late NAME WITHHELD, spent her adult life as a home health care worker. We'll guess that she gave devoted, heartfelt service every single day that she served.
Would it serve children to hear every fact from within our American history? Would such a national conversation serve the interests of adults? Would some such project help build a better world? Can some such undertaking even be sanely imagined?
There is no answer to such questions. Tomorrow, though, as we struggle to finish our week's report, we'll try to discuss several topics:
We'll discuss the journalistically best part of Norris' essay. We'll also discuss this, the part of her essay we found most striking by far:
NORRIS: On a personal level, this false narrative about America is another act of cruelty, even a kind of larceny. I view the real story, the genuine history—ugly as it is—as part of my people’s wealth. You built this country on the backs of African Americans’ ancestors. Our contributions—in blood, sweat and bondage—must be told. Our children, indeed, all of America, deserve to know what we have endured and survived to understand the depth of our fortitude, but also to understand that, despite centuries of enslavement and years of Black Codes and brutal Jim Crow segregation, our contributions are central to America’s might. The erasure is massive in scope.
When Norris suddenly went to "you" and "we," that struck us as most striking and instructive part of her essay, by far.
We'll discuss the occasional carelessness of Norris' recent journalism. We'll discuss the moral meaning of an act in which someone like Norris seems to condemn all others, present and past, while only her goodness endures.
(We humans are strongly inclined to construe things that way, several top experts have told us.)
We'll also discuss our most striking memory from the years we spent in the Baltimore schools. It involves the reaction of that initial fifth-grade class to a certain film we all watched late in the spring of that year.
Those Baltimore kids were eleven years old. (Off in Minneapolis, Norris was eight and a half.) Those kids watched a film, then asked this question:
How could anyone treat children like that?
The film was set in a rural Mexican village. Sitting in a Baltimore school, those kids were incredulous, angry.
Tomorrow: Separation re-emerges
“The Forgotten Village” was [John] Steinbeck’s first direct engagement with the art of film. The project was born out of Steinbeck’s desire to break away from Hollywood productions and produce an authentic portrait of Mexican culture. Featuring the real inhabitants of a rural hamlet in the mountains of Santiago in Mexico, this ethnographic cross between a documentary and a fictional film deals with the basic conflict between the deep-rooted indigenous culture and the sweeping tide of modernization...