Justice in History – PSU Art & Social Practice


Justice in History

People who seek to learn history should know the truth, Students who are required to learn history should know the truth. Educators who have a passion to instruct, analyze, and facilitate history should speak the truth. In the west the narrative has been watered down, shaped in heroism, led by White Anglo Saxon Protestant men who escaped persecution of their homelands. In their circumventing of cultural cleansing, these men were perceived to have discovered a new world. From this point we have heard the white patriarchal experience hundreds of thousands of times over. Independance, westward expansion, abolition, industrialism, etc. Great wars, wars to end all wars, cold wars, wars on drugs, and wars on terrorism. Indeed there have been heroes, people who will continue to be idolized for their leadership, noble acts, and overall ingenuity. There are numerous reasons to take pride in being American, of course. American citizenship allows us to freely state our critical opinions of government, and not be placed in reeducation camps. Being an American “citizen” provides the platform to approach education with a very critical lens, especially when addressing United States history and civics.

Remember how great it felt to learn about the first Thanksgiving? Proud colonists trading their knowledge and food with indigenous peoples in the “new world.” Traditional education indoctrinates students in the roots of Thanksgiving at a very young age. Before we can even read we find it important to understand the first story of the new heroes. Turkeys are drawn on construction paper, cut out and pasted onto additional construction paper. Back in the day you could even cut out feathers, paste them to a headband and portray the “Indian” being saved from the great interior wilderness of your homeland. This story is a first step in a deep abyss. It prescribes the setting for a host of single-perspective events that some people never escape from. These lies create a host of problems in which the only victims are the students themselves. Generation after generation are perceiving war as a necessity of heroism, and injustice of many as a mandatory sacrifice.

Without some events indeed our world would be different, slavery for example. American chattel slavery created the most wealthy country on earth, no doubt. Not just southern planters were invested in the slave trade, cash crops and purchasing of large swaths of land. Wealthy northerners were sometimes directly involved; there was an immense profit to be made at various levels of this multidimensional institution. Importing humans as property, exporting of goods, innovation, and manufacturing were just a few of those components. Therefore, saviors of the black Africans were liberating slaves in theory, but withholding their freedom in reality. Northern entrepreneurs were equal to their southern counterparts in their determination to profit from the institution of slavery. In this young land of opportunity and free market economics, flesh was the sacrifice. Inhumanity was the backbone, and violence the legacy.

Indeed it hurts to learn that our forefathers, for some, were equally the masters of our ancestors. Great urban centers on beautiful waterways were once sacred tribal ceremonial grounds. Lands seized by people who conquer for freedom, wealth and protection of a certain few. The story of these victors and conquerors, in its most glorious and docile form, has filled our textbooks and become the mainstream narrative learned by students in history classes throughout the past century. Yet it is not the whole story; it lacks important details which are not yet lost to us as a society. We have the knowledge available in our collective memory to fill in the gaps and teach the whole story, the many truths that have so often been neglected. We are at a critical juncture at this moment: a crossroads where we can choose to embrace and teach our story from various perspectives or continue our past traditions of ignoring one side, whitewashing our textbooks, and teaching our students only the story of the victors, thereby perpetuating the cycle of misunderstanding which bolsters our deepest societal inequities.

This is why it is time to revise our history classes, textbooks and strategies for building upstanding citizens. No longer can educators perpetuate our original narrative as a means of assimilating some while undoubtedly disenfranchising others. In this search for justice in history, everyone is subjected to stories that are seemly impossible, overwhelming, and unfair. Hopefully by understanding these stories, students begin understanding the various conflicts that are present in contemporary society. Sexism, racism, xenophobia, consumerism and an overall imbalance of wealth in america and worldwide are just some of the problems perpetuated by our dominant perspective approach to teaching history.

Because it is difficult to capture and teach all stories, there is no timetable in which this goal might be attained, if ever. Nevertheless, it is essential that the instruction is implemented with fidelity, led without fear, and asserted with an objective cultural lens. Justice in history will not trickle down from our policy makers or the Department of Education, instead it will be led from the trenches of education. Educators must set the foundation in creating upstanders who refuse to let our history repeat itself, or mold the future. Moreover, it is never too early for our youth to learn the truth, an acknowledgement that there are two sides to every story. A good and a bad, merged into one narrative. It is time to merge the good and bad into one narrative, and to tell as many of the side stories as possible, before they are forever lost.

Since the truth has been proposed, what does this look like in the classroom in which I deliver instruction? My students are historically underserved, various institutions including education have left them overwhelmed and disenfranchised. Like many of today’s youth, their perspectives are often narrow, provided via internet and entertainment. However, this lack of experience is broadened in my classroom due to the fact that my students are brown and black. Furthermore, attending an underserved title I school means that we often don’t have opportunities to take our work into the field for real life experiences. Unfortunately a majority of our learning occurs in the classroom, and interacting with the greater world online. Therefore, it is my continuous goal to provide curriculum and instruction that examines US and global history using multiple perspectives. Again, informing students of the entire story, good and bad. Text, which allow me to facilitate culturally relevant and responsive instruction include, Howard Zinn’s Young People’s History of the United States. Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart’s Peoples Curriculum of the Earth, and when appropriate news specials from news outlets like Vice. Intertwined in this work is also my personal perspective.

As a black historian it is my job to retell the stories from our past, and I tend to do so with passion, I am one of the voices that for too long was ignored. I draw comparisons from the past to struggles and conflicts of the present. I provide students an academic voice that will hopefully be utilized in a powerful manner as they mature into contributing adults. I often tell students the most meaningful successful individuals are those who possess strong academic knowledge, and an ability to articulate themselves in a calm decisive manner. Is this always executed perfectly? I wish yes was the answer, but that would be another false claim, again perpetuating the belief that life is perfect, similar to the story we create of the American Dream. I am only sowing the seeds, it will take much more than me working with students over one or two years. Highschool instructors and administrators must be actively involved. University admissions officers, human resources and college professors alike will need to step up and provide a space that encourages moderate conversation. A space where people learn to understand each other’s knowledge, or lack thereof. White allies, black allies, hispanic, asian and native allies will all need to be present. Last but not least, society will need to put aside politics, heritage and other divisive tactics such as entertainment and media. It is society’s obligation to take on this task, reversing the harm created when our “forefathers” systematized our various institutions, based on where good was obligated to conquer evil.

Gerald D. Scrutchions is a middle school Social Studies teacher in Portland, OR. His goals are to instruct students to develop multiple perspectives when considering events of the past and present. Further, Gerald sits on the Portland Public Schools Environmental Climate Justice, which was the first of it’s kind in the United States. He is a strong advocate of teaching social and climate justice as well as reforming the use of textbooks in classrooms that fail to consider injustices of the past, or impacts of man made climate change of the present and future.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.

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