By Gerald Taylor / Special to The Washington Post
“Daddy, is this racist?”
My son looked up from his school assignment: Draw a person from the Yaocomaco tribe based on descriptions from the journal entries of one of Maryland’s early European settlers. The settler, Father Andrew White, was a Jesuit priest who encountered the Indigenous tribe along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay in 1634.
But my 9-year-old felt uncomfortable.
As a biracial child, half Black and half Chinese, he has already experienced his share of racism. His mother and I have frequent discussions with him about race and cultural awareness. So it was not a surprise when he posed the question to me about his fourth-grade assignment.
The intent of the exercise was to use excerpts from White’s journals as a primary source for learning about early Maryland history. The problem? White’s words promote a singular Eurocentric narrative rife with racist language and false assumptions. Rather than facts, they are the observations of a man who sees himself as physically and culturally superior to the people he is describing.
White describes the Yaocomaco people as “tall and fine in stature” (as if he were referring to a horse or mule), ascribing certain physical traits to an entire ethnic group based on his limited interactions with a few. He uses loaded words such as “disfigure” to describe their painted faces; colors and patterns that may have had religious or cultural meaning, but that he sees as a purely cosmetic endeavor that he does not find particularly appealing.
He characterizes them as “dark-skinned,” an observation that would be made only from the perspective of a person with white skin. As a Black man, I do not think there is a Native tribe in the Americas that I would describe as “dark-skinned”; as in skin darker than my own.
White defaults to his own culture as the standard to explain what he does not understand. That standard has survived for almost 400 years and is now being presented as fact in a fourth-grade lesson plan. Perspective matters, and when no other perspective is offered, readers can only visualize the Yaocomaco people through White’s xenophobic lens.
I have been an educator for more than 20 years. I majored in history and African American studies in college and taught both subjects as a high school teacher. So as a student of history, I wanted to learn more about White and gain a fuller picture of the man central to this school assignment.
What I found only further showed why my son’s instinct about his homework was right.
I read the entire journal from which the excerpts were taken, giving a fuller picture of White’s sentiments of Indigenous people. He referred to them as “wild and filthy savages.” He called them “barbarians.”
These were commonly held views of Indigenous people by missionaries and early settlers of the Americas throughout the 1600s; but common beliefs do not equate to truth.
When we limit the interpretation of the past to only one whitewashed perspective, we get a distorted view of history. The Civil War becomes a fight for states’ rights and not about slavery. Columbus becomes the revered explorer who discovered America rather than a voyager who mistakenly landed in the Caribbean and enslaved the people he encountered there. Thanksgiving becomes a celebration of intercultural friendship instead of the beginning of decades of disease, war and colonial expansion that devastated Native people.
My son’s teacher did not intend to promote racial stereotypes. She was very apologetic when my wife and I raised our concerns about the assignment, and after a constructive email exchange, she immediately pulled the lesson from her teaching. She thanked us for helping her see the lesson, which she had used for years, from a different perspective and vowed to provide a more balanced and accurate narrative of history in future lessons.
But this is not the first time I have had to flag one of my son’s teachers about a racist or culturally insensitive activity. In the second grade, he was asked to portray an enslaved person following the North Star to freedom on the Underground Railroad in an ill-conceived — and subsequently abandoned — musical production for Black History Month. In first grade, his class was taught a song that included physical gestures to symbolize different countries. The gesture for China was pulling back the sides of their eyes into a slant.
These incidents happened in schools in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, one of the most liberal regions of the country. That means similar moments are happening nationwide. It makes me wonder what incidents are not being called out and what is happening in places where Black Lives Matter signs are not displayed in people’s windows and on their lawns.
Many educators forget that history is more than a collection of dates, events and people. It is also about perspective, an interpretation of events through the lens of our own cultural experiences. These interpretations can create different narratives based on what is told and how it is told, what is emphasized and what is left out.
I do not think that a journal like that of Andrew White’s needs to be eliminated from classrooms as a historical source. Quite the contrary. His words and observations are part of history and provide valuable insight into his world and the times in which he lived. However, they should not stand alone as fact.
To create a balanced historical narrative, such sources must be placed in the proper context as a lesson in perspective — explaining how race and culture affect people’s interpretations — or in conjunction with other viewpoints. When we can see the world from multiple perspectives, we are able to formulate our own truth.
We should not be in the business of teaching historical fiction that celebrates imperialists and conquerors while minimizing the stories of the victimized. We should want our students to be well-balanced truth-seekers who are empowered by hearing all of the perspectives that have contributed to the larger narrative of our diverse country. The more voices we hear that speak beyond the racist ramblings of a man like White, the closer we are to historical accuracy and understanding.
When I taught school, at the beginning of every school year I would write one of my favorite quotes on the board to set the tone for my class:
“Until the lions have their historians, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”: Chinua Achebe
White is the hunter, and his tale has survived for centuries. It is now time for the lions to have their say.
Gerald Taylor is a stay-at-home dad and a former high school history teacher.