A Case for Freedom School Curriculum in 2017: A Response to Charlottesville - by Montana Miller

On Saturday morning, several hundred armed white-nationalists mobbed their way through the University of Virginia in a sinister display of domestic terrorism that harked back to the murderous lynch mobs of the Jim Crow South. Some journalists tempered the truth under euphemisms of rally and protest, but the deaths and hospitalizations of peaceful activists prove that white terrorism is alive and well in the US. In following the tragedy as it unfolded, I realized I was not interested in why people support or resist Trump; I was interested in what those same people learned in school that led to these beliefs, and what we can teach children now to build a better world together. So what does #Charlottesville have to do with the social studies curriculum of a high school freshman class? The answer is everything.

There have been many a pundit who have explained just how on earth! Donald Trump became President of the United States, but none of them have traced it to the implicit messages that schools send children in segregated neighborhoods about themselves and the nation. Journalists and experts have cited every phenomenon from low voter turnout, to racist white women, to rural poverty, to the left's disillusionment with Clinton, to a migration of young, uneducated whites to the GOP and everything in between. Sure, all of these shifts had their influence on the outcome of the 2016 election. However, the people who cast their ballots (and the ones who did not) were all children at one point. They sat in desks and they learned a history that directly contributed to their worldview and who they trust to lead them.

The truth is American public-school students are more familiar with the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria than they are with W.E.B, Stokely, or Fannie Lou. I have notebooks filled with T-charts of the Columbian Exchange and Venn Diagrams comparing the opinions of the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans in 1790. As students, we were required to memorize the same takeaways of the Seneca Falls Convention and Articles of Confederation that put our grandparents to sleep fifty years ago. No wonder kids hate history class; teachers are feeding them academic benzodiazepines and handing out praises for how articulately they can recite other people’s opinions.

Our teachers never posed a question like “Why are there no black kids or teachers at this school?” Instead, we were asked seemingly complex questions that had straightforward answers, never simple questions that necessitated complicated, nuanced explanations. Unfortunately, the majority of American schools give students the tools necessary to vehemently perpetuate or tacitly accept the unnatural and dehumanizing state of segregation. The disenfranchisement of millions from economic and political power and the criminal level of state sanctioned violence and slavery are propped up or ignored in the name of American Freedom. The history children learn in school and the swaths of truth teachers omit directly form the fabric of American social attitudes decades down the road. So, what were the self-identifying Nazis and Klansmen learning in school that made traumatizing a community so easy? And what were the police officers learning that made reaction to their terrorism so half-hearted?

When children are separated from one another along racial lines, ignorance and fear lead to prejudices that have the potential to plague their social attitudes and dictate their political and personal decisions throughout adulthood. In segregated neighborhoods across America, children are taught disproportionately about white people, white contributions to society, and white standards of beauty so repeatedly that white becomes the default state. The white experience is posited as universal when it is anything but. This happens with such persistence that white teens at best are unconscious of the humanity they deny black people every day and at worst, actively participating in their disparagement through fear and intimidation while black teens receive the message loud and clear that White America has not and will not ever care for them.

The current education system in America is a social and political incubus that requires  immediate and massive reform, however one of the biggest issues can be summarized with a case study of one school in particular: Los Gatos High School, my alma mater. The high school I attended prides itself on being progressive, on offering safe spaces for LGBTQ students, on catering teaching to different learning styles and providing counseling for any student requiring extra socio-emotional support. It is ranked 55 in all high schools of California and the majority of its graduates attend four-year colleges. It is effectively, what every public school in the US strives to be. As of 2015, the average household income in Los Gatos, CA was $134,019 and the median value of homes and condos hovered at around $1,000,000. The 2017 high school graduation rate was 98%. This same high school made national headlines this year for two racist prom proposals posted to social media, one involving blackface and the other horrifyingly depicting a lynching and a racial slur. Parents were “shocked” and “outraged,” just as many Americans were yesterday. In looking through photographs of the mob at UVA, I realize I would not have been able to immediately distinguish them from snapshots of the student body of my alma mater after a football game. No, they did not carry torches or wave swastikas on Friday nights, but they were armed with the same dangerous attitudes of white superiority that currently cripple our nation and have since its inception.

Yesterday, white-nationalist terrorists reminded a sleepy American populous that we have not yet reached the mountaintop. We forget that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, who white people love to quote, did not die from natural causes. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Viola Liuzzo were all murdered before their 40th birthdays. Medgar Evers was shot dead outside of his own home at 37. Fred Hampton was murdered by the Chicago Police in the middle of the night next to his pregnant wife in his own home at 23. There is an entire generation of activists who were wiped out: murdered, imprisoned, and exiled. Black America notes their absence as a warning, White America as evidence of progress.

Barack Obama tweeted the borrowed words of Nelson Mandela in the wake of the Charlottesville terror attack: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” So I ask again what were children  learning in school in the formative years of their early adolescence and why was it not love, first and foremost? There is no reason why the majority of American fourteen-year-olds learns about Eli Whitney and his cotton gin, yet cannot name more than five black authors let alone five black friends they love. The result of this deliberate disregard for black folks’ history and humanity, leads children to believing myths instead of truths about their nation. So what if we did not silence black history? What if we taught Black Liberation and Black Consciousness with as much fervor as The First Thanksgiving or Susan B. Anthony? What if we provided some nuance, that The First Thanksgiving cannot outweigh a full-scale genocide that still continues today for example, and that Susan was a colossal racist? It is time we invest in a generation that cares for one another, that knows the truth about the atrocities America has committed and is educated enough to choose new heroes. We must ask the question: is there space for love in school? Can we teach history with love? Truthfully, it is the only way we will ever see change. For once we divorce human compassion and sensitivity from tales of war, and rape, and slavery, history loses its power.

The Freedom School Curriculum of Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964 provides a foundation with which to teach history with love. America’s past is sordid, torturous, and ugly. But it’s people are diverse, and ambitious, and beautiful. And in confronting a brutal past with a mind and heart open to whole, complicated, and nuanced truths, America’s children might grow into adults to love one another.  

Before we can understand Freedom Schools, we first must understand Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964. If there were ever a more salient time to learn about Freedom Summer, it is unfortunately today, in the aftermath of a white-supremacist terror attack in the South. The Freedom Summer Project was a full-scale grassroots movement planned, initiated, and executed by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as an effort to educate and register as many black Mississippians as possible in the hopes of advancing black folks’ political power through a new party called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Student activists and volunteers flooded Mississippi to teach and train black folks on the importance of civil disobedience, non-violence, and political participation. One of Freedom Summer’s main methods of educating Mississippians was through Freedom Schools.

As the introduction to the curriculum states, Freedom Schools educated people of all ages and backgrounds on front porches and under trees in spite of the risk of white supremacist retaliation. The curriculum opens with its vision: “We are going to talk about a lot of things: about Negro people and white people, about rich people and poor people, about the South and about the North, about you and what you think and feel and want. . . . And we’re going to try to be honest with each other and say what we believe. . . . We’ll also ask some questions and try to find some answers. The first thing is to look around, right here, and see how we live in Mississippi.”

Teachers operated from a curriculum that prioritized confidence, citizenship, and voter literacy, but was centered around being relevant to the lives of Mississippians. Flexible and built of improvisation and adaptability, the curriculum for Freedom Schools tackled questions of racism, of state sanctioned violence, of civil disobedience, of voter suppression, of slavery, of poverty, of Southern power structures, and of resistance. Through case studies of different social movements both international and domestic, Freedom School Teachers, who were often volunteer college student-activists, were able to present histories that students did not find in their schools during the academic year if they were able to attend school at all. They were able to empower students, regardless of age or race or creed, to love one another through questioning systems and confronting their own assumptions.

Some of my own students recently asked some of these questions we as a society sweep under the rug. One week after a white man walked into Charleston’s Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church and massacred nine black people during prayer in June 2015, I taught my first Literature lesson to a classroom full of eighth graders. Every one of them was black, and they had questions “Why didn’t they fight back?” and “Why do people hate us?” which led to more personal questions of “Why don’t white boys like me?” and “Why do white ladies hold their purses tighter when I walk by?” And I didn’t have all the answers. But I had books, and interviews, and data, and stories, and poems, written by and about people who looked like them. That summer students read Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Kitchenette,” and learned about housing discrimination, red-lining, and Greensboro sit-ins. They listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and confronted their own stereotypes. They learned to identify the coded language that still allows for discriminatory legislation, and they felt safe to address instances of racism without fear of being called sensitive or paranoid. They were thirteen and they were learning the history that Freedom Schools taught during Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964. They were reading Stokely, Assata, and Angela and their minds were alive with the energy of hope and of change. I had a curriculum based on the vision of Freedom Schools: to increase the confidence and voter literacy of students and allow them space to question their preconceptions and assumptions about race in America. And I had love. And that was enough. It was enough to get us started on a summer of learning American history in its grotesque, contradictory, messy shame. It was enough to set them up with resources and languages and mentors to better understand and resist days like yesterday. Whether they are a porch in Mississippi, a coffee shop in San Francisco, or a classroom in Boston, Freedom Schools make tomorrow less frightening. Under their shade as we devote intentional time to confronting our collective past and imagining our shared future, peace no longer seems a pipe dream.

Greer Clem