July 25, 2021

Michele L. Norris: Students need to learn about the haters and the helpers of our history

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Michele Norris is a columnist for Post Opinions and the founding director of the Race Card Project. In this Washington Post piece, she makes some pointed observations about the push to muzzle history in schools.

When a former federal marshal named Al Butler died almost a decade ago, he asked his wife to spread his ashes in front of an elementary school in New Orleans where he protected Black children as they tried to integrate all-White schools. He made this request because, he said, it was the most important work of his life. And he wanted people to always remember.

I thought of Butler recently when a group called Moms for Liberty tried to shut down the use of a curriculum in Williamson County, Tenn., that includes an autobiography by Ruby Bridges. As a 6-year-old in 1960, Bridges became an international symbol of the civil rights movement, and one of the first Black children to integrate New Orleans schools.

The Tennessee Moms argue that her book, “Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story,” contains too many truths that cut too close to the bone. The mothers find the story objectionable, citing a description of a “large crowd of angry white people who didn’t want Black children in a white school.” They say that’s too negative a rendering of a moment that is well documented in books, film and photography.

Have these mothers not seen the pictures from that year-long struggle over integration? Have they avoided the photographs of White women with their necks jutted out and the mouths screaming as though their world was coming to an end? One of the protesters from 1960 carried a sign that read: “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school.”

The Moms for Liberty also complained that Bridges’s memoir offers no “redemption at its end.”

This is where their display of strategic umbrage goes fully off the rails and into a muddy ditch for me.

We do our children no favors if we only feed them a steady diet of fairy tales that sidestep life’s complexities. We commit long-term harm as guardians when we sanitize our history in the name of protecting our kids from feeling bad about themselves. What’s really at work is adults trying to outrun a sense of shame.

Read the rest of the piece here.

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