By Leah S. Abrams
My friend, Ed Jackson, offered me one of the wisest life lessons I’ve learned anew many times: “Sometimes, in life, a twig is just a twig.” He shared this nugget with me when I was in high school, when he was Dr. J., my history teacher. It was profound to me that this notion should come from someone who was always teaching us to dig down further into the story.
A few weeks before this past November’s election, I asked Dr. Jackson – now Ed – why the way I’d been taught seems so vastly different from how I’ve recently found myself learning is not how most folks appear to have been educated, particularly in high school. How was it, I wondered, that so many people learned what seems a very one-sided, glossed-over version of U.S. History. What were these text books responsible for people’s knowledge base?
You see, I learned history and government through teachers, beginning in junior high and fully blooming with Dr. Jackson in high school, who offered us a variety of books, essays, lectures, and facilitated discussions. As a rather direct result of Dr. J.’s sophomore year class where I spent weekends with my classmates in our city’s then very intimate library, tracing the routes followed by Native American tribes as they were continually pushed off their land, I ended up on a cross-country trip.
My sister and I were the only students on that summer’s teen bus /camping tour who most relished the history and geography of the trek. My sister had inherited our father’s passion for local history. We were from Boston, he’d enthused, steeped in our Nation’s long narrative for all the pride that comes with it, along with the responsibility for the many accompanying ails. My sister, upon moving with her mother to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn two years before that summer journey, was steeped in pursuit of becoming the local fountain of historical knowledge that my dad was on our home state and, like him, she soaked in tales of any place she visited.
As for me, geography had long eluded me, until Dr. Jackson brought it to life, connected it to stories of progress and of all the tribulations, suffering, injustice, loss that is the ongoing price paid for those bits of advancement. To see the country I’d finally understood on a map, to physically attach landmarks and rivers and mountain ranges to all I’d been studying was thrilling.
In another of Dr. Jackson’s classes, I wrote a paper comparing three U.S. cities, looking at subjects that included education and economics. That is the first time I remember encountering a dismay that would come to continually pang me as it did my grandmother with whom I discussed it years later when she visited me in Oakland and noticed it herself. Namely, the condition of places named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
While I no longer recall all three cities I researched in Dr. J.’s class, I remember vividly the fury and heartbreak of reading about East St. Louis, Illinois. It was in Jonathan Kozol’s then just-published “Savage Inequalities” that I first ran across this passage quoting a 14-year old girl:
“Every year in February we are told to read the same old speech of Martin Luther King. We read it every year. ‘I have a dream…’ It does begin to seem – what is the word?… Perfunctory… We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King. The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black. It’s like a terrible joke on history.”
There is a review from the Chicago Tribune at the front of that book that strikes me now, nearly thirty years later, with a heavy blow: “One wonders, though, whether a sequel to Savage Inequalities – written, say, twenty-five years from now – will document a country that decided to embrace and educate all its children.”
If one is to tune into any reputable news outlet, it is abundantly clear that we would have to answer Thomas Cottle of The Tribune with the response he clearly feared: no. Inequities reign. Our schools are still largely segregated and not at all equal. And, at 2020’s Martin Luther King Day commemoration in East St. Louis, The Rev. J. Kevin James Jr. called on the community:
“to not wait for the one time a year when King’s dream is celebrated… This should not be the only time we push for justice… Imagine an East St. Louis with black-owned businesses, black-owned grocery stores, a Walmart with a black general manager, a city where our schools are thriving not because of test scores but because of content… I wrestle today with this idea of this beloved community. Dr. King’s dream spoke of hope. He wanted us to continue in this dream and make it become a reality. But, in the world we’re living in today, it almost seems like we’re going backwards… All around this country we call the land of the free, we find there’s a continual joy in allowing other people to suffer and be persecuted.”
My pre-election conversation with Dr. Jackson – now Ed – shed a good deal of light on how we’ve gotten here and why it is that my history education was unique. In the 1980’s, Ed explained, states began pushing for more standardized tests – tests designed by outside consultants rather than by teachers, and those tests would be used to grade schools. One result? A nationwide slashing of civics courses – no more education around voting, the Constitution, city and state government workings.
I was fortunate. I grew up in a Boston suburb that my mother could not afford because my great-uncle had built my grandparents a house there long before and we moved in with them before she met my dad in the same town. And so, because of good luck relating not at all to anything I did or accomplished, I went to a high school where Ed Jackson, along with another of our teachers, had responded to those educational system changes by creating a “Government & Politics” course that proved so popular it was expanded to include 10th graders.
That move away from an in-depth understanding of how our country has evolved, of the way our Democracy works, of the ways in which systems perpetuate inequity if they remain unchallenged leads directly to where we find ourselves in this moment in history. We must do better. We must not turn to yet another generation and demand they continue fighting the same battle for simple human decency in a country more than capable of providing for all its inhabitants. We must not continue paying attention to what we call Black History only in February.
I want my nephew to come of age in an era where Black History is fully absorbed into all U.S. History courses, in classrooms that are truly representative of all of us. I want him to know a society that finally woke up, once and for all, to all its faults and realized it had the power to change – to actually embody the principles upon which it proclaims to be based. When he hears from a student at that East St. Louis school named for Dr. King, I want him to hear of an education like the one I got from Ed Jackson, in a building as safe and overflowing with resources as the one where I got that education. And when he drives down Martin Luther King Blvd. in any city in this country, I want him to see those thriving Black-owned business described by Reverend James, being frequented by people of every race and ethnicity and gender identity and religion as makes up our species.
Ed was right – there are too many very real, very big things in this world for us to work toward repairing to spend time on those small, personal things we make into so much more than they are – the twigs that are just that. The complicated part – the part that needs our attention – is the tree as a whole, its expansive root system, the communication system that runs among the forest as a whole. Let us turn our attention there – let us tackle it once and for all so that today’s young people are not, thirty years on, shaking their heads at books they studied long ago under a misguided faith that, ugly truth exposed, we would choose a different path once and for all.