On Black history, listen to the youngsters

Published 6:31 pm Tuesday, April 5, 2022

The question on the floor, ladies and gentlemen:

Should history, as it is taught in our public schools, be presented fully, to include our heroes and villains, our aspirations of greatness as well as the shameful elements that have hindered that greatness? Should that history be an idealized snapshot of our past, or a realistic look at ancestral accomplishments and failures, from which a great nation was forged and an even greater nation may yet emerge?

Before we call the roll on this all-important question, may I present, as Exhibit A, the writings of those now studying in our local schools, those who will be most impacted by our decision — the next generation. They submitted to The Smithfield Times, for its second annual Black History Month essay contest, a remarkable collection of their thoughts on the subject. If you think young people today are frittering away their time playing computer games, then these essays should go a long way toward dispelling that concern.

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The entries didn’t come from one or two young people. The newspaper received more than 50 altogether, and there may well have been an internal winnowing process before they even arrived at the paper, though I don’t know that.

Smithfield Town Council member Valerie Butler and I were asked to judge 15 finalists. We were given the essays electronically, and Times Publisher Steve Stewart wisely removed any student identification. We didn’t know the race, sex, grade level or even the school from which the essays came, so our judgment was unsullied by any preconceived bias on behalf of any student or school.

Those that we were asked to judge were downright inspirational. While some adults are fretting over whether Johnny might feel badly that his ancestors acted poorly, these young people want to know it all. They want to understand the rich fabric that makes up the history of our African American population, the crucible in which that race’s progress has been so painfully forged. These students, black and white, want the truth, and with that truth, they are determined to build a better future, an America that finally reaches the promise of its hallowed Declaration.

But let them take the floor on their own behalf:

Smithfield High School 12th grader Paityn Barefoot wrote the following:

“Throughout history, individuals have been taught a curriculum surrounding the white man’s perspective, which influenced students’ point of view on racial topics and furthered their ignorance. Society now has an opportunity to prevent biased teachings from influencing the public, so why not further social change? This begins with teaching the correct topics. One concept that has been neglected in past years is the acknowledgment of how the black population improved America.”

Then, there was Grace Ericksen, who lamented that the high school presents a Black history “fact” over the public address system each day in February.

“Is giving a random fact every day for one month that nobody really listens to the best way to honor the group of people who are singled out and discriminated against the most? One month is not enough to learn about the rich history of Black people in America,” she wrote.

Grace concluded that: “As human beings we need to be held accountable and do the research and do the things necessary to pay respect that has never been given to the Black community.”

Then, there was this insightful view from another writer:

“If we fail to teach Black History in schools, we will forget a vital part of America’s history as a whole. Ignoring Black history will make people of color feel excluded and ignored, and issues like racism, founded on ignorance, will continue.”

Another student favors educating people about current culture, having a candid discussion about things that are often said that may be offensive to the listener but totally innocent to the speaker.

“We should be learning how to respect and how to approach conversations about racism. We should be taught about things that are said in conversations that offend the black community, because I am positive people have no idea that what they are saying is offensive.”

There is a vocal minority in our midst who would return us to the 1950s, to a time when Virginia history books were a collective ballad to white supremacy. To them, unvarnished American history is far too painful, far too “divisive” to be taught.

History is unquestionably painful, and yes, for four centuries, it has been divisive. God, has it ever! But only a truthful telling of our past can begin to end that division. Our young people clearly understand that. The question before us is, are we mature enough and brave enough to join them in their quest for truth?


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.