How should parents supplement the watered-down history children learn at school?

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Michelle Myers

As a parent with a school-aged child, I struggle with how much I should interfere with what she learns at school. For example, I dread when Thanksgiving comes around because I’m always certain that I’m going to be offended by some misrepresentation of the Pilgrims’/Puritans’ relationship with and treatment of American Indians. I get damned irked by the depiction of a happy, smiling dinner party as if the idealistic American “melting pot” started on that day.

The one year I had had it was when my daughter said that she liked the way the Pilgrims dressed — I guess it was something about how “cute” or “pretty” their dresses were — and I went into this big, long lecture about how, actually, the Puritans wore those clothes because they were trying not to make a fashion statement because they thought such attention to appearance was vain and sinful, etc., etc. Then I told her that I wanted her to know what the Puritans and colonists really did to the American Indians, so I made her read excerpts from William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation John Smith’s Narrative, and some books about The Trail of Tears.

I think she didn’t like these as much as the romanticism offered in the standard American versions/myths told in school. Looking back, she also may have been too young to understand what I was trying to tell her.

My husband has done his fair share of corrective teaching as well. During Black History Month a couple of years ago, he was angry about how the school was tring to teach the kids about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a description about Dr. King’s life and activist work, the kids were told that he wasn’t trying to promote the rights of just one race but all races. My husband felt that that completely discredited Dr. King’s Civil Rights work and how he tried to expose the racism and inequalities directed toward black people in America. So he made my daughter listen to Dr. King’s speeches and watch some documentaries. This was about 2 years ago when she was 8-years-old. My daughter became really interested in the Civil Rights Movement, reading more about Dr. King and Rosa Parks.

So some of my questions are: what responsibility do we bear in this kind of corrective teaching when we feel our schools have revised history? Should we tell our kids that George Washington didn’t chop down the cherry tree? Should we tell them that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves while he was writing the Declaration of Independence–that he eventually had children by one of his slaves?

Should we pressure our schools to be more responsible in what they teach? What age is too young to tell our children the somber truth about how racism is inextricably tied up in American history, politics, and values? How much of this “truth” can at kids handle and at what age? If our kids are dressing up like “Pilgrims” and “Indians” at Thanksgiving and having fun playing dinner party, should we let them have their fun? My questions are all over the place, but I think you can get the jist of what I’m saying.

Michelle Myers holds a Ph.D. in English from Temple University, specializing in Asian American Literature. She is a founding member of the spoken word poetry group Yellow Rage, which was featured on HBO’s RUSSELL SIMMONS PRESENTS DEF POETRY, and which recently released its second CD: HANDLE WITH CARE, VOL. 2. She is also a founding member of the performance collective Asians Misbehavin’. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Community College of Philadelphia and Grants Coordinator at SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition). Michelle lives in NJ with her husband, Tyrone, and their three children: Myong, Victor, and Vanessa.

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