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Works of Radical Imagination

With the forthcoming publication of Voices of a People’s History of the United States in the 21st Century, a new collection edited by Anthony Arnove and Haley Pessin, we are proud to share a series of excerpts from the book, which will be published individually each week on the Seven Stories blog until the book's release.

This week's excerpt adapts Jesse Hagopian's speech that he delivered to the #TeachTruth rally in Seattle, Washington, on June 12, 2021, a National Day of Action during which teachers in more than forty cities demonstrated in opposition to a slew of new state laws aimed at banning teachers from educating about institutional racism, gender inequality, and other forms of oppression. In the piece, Hagopian reiterates his commitment to teaching accurate history, regardless of the laws passed intending to curb his students' rights to learn.

A new companion to the classic collection edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History of the United States in the 21st Century brings together more than 100 activist texts on social and economic justice that have shaped the last 22 years. The editors, Arnove and Pessin, offer a curated collection of voices of hope and resistance from Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the struggle for Indigenous liberation, activist groups for immigrant rights, environmentalist movements, disability justice organizing, and frontline workers during the global pandemic who spoke out against the life-threatening conditions of their labor.

Included in this new book are writings by Angela Y. Davis, Nick Estes, Colin Kaepernick, Rebecca Solnit, Christian Smalls, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Howard Zinn, Rev. William Barber, Bree Newsome, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Tarana J. Burke, Dream Defenders, Sins Invalid, Mariame Kaba, Naomi Klein, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Linda Sarsour, Chelsea E. Manning, Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, Julian Brave NoiseCat, H. Melt, and others. Together, their words remind us that history is made not only by the rich and powerful, but by ordinary people taking collective action.

On June 12, 2021, teachers in more than forty cities joined a National Day of Action to #TeachTruth in opposition to a slew of new state laws seeking to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory and about institutional racism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression. Educator Jesse Hagopian, who works with the Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter at School, delivered this speech at the #TeachTruth rally in Seattle, Washington.

Jesse Hagopian, “I’m Not Alone in Pledging to #TeachTruth”

(June 12, 2021)

Racists are scared these days, y’all.

You can tell a scared racist because when they can’t win a debate, they just try to make it illegal for you to say—or teach—anything that challenges them. I’m proud to stand with all of you today in the #TeachTruth movement.

I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on homeland of the Duwamish people—land that was colonized by the United States. We live in a city named after a Duwamish Chief and yet the Duwamish people still don’t have federal recognition . . . And, now, wait a minute . . . If I was in Tennessee, would it even be legal for me to acknowledge that I was on Native American land that was colonized? That’s really how far things have gone these days.

These laws banning the teaching of structural racism, sexism, and oppression are impacting every classroom—because even in states where there isn’t yet a bill, this legislation is emboldening people to attack teachers who want to teach the truth. And everyone should know that our neighbors to the east, the state of Idaho, recently passed a bill that declares, “Social justice ideology poses a grave threat to America and to the American way of life.” What? They are literally arguing that it’s social justice that poses a threat, not racism and sexism.

But you can’t understand our country without understanding racism and its intersections with sexism and heterosexism. Consider these facts:

- The average white family has ten times [more] wealth than the average Black family.

- A Black woman is three times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than a white woman.

- Black students are over three times more likely to be suspended from school than white students.

- Anti-Asian hate crimes have surged over 169 percent so far this year.

- At least forty-four transgender and gender non-conforming people were violently killed in 2020, with Black transgender women accounting for two-thirds of total recorded deaths since 2013.

Despite these glaring examples, in Iowa, they recently passed a bill which bans teaching that “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.”

According to Merriam-Webster, “fundamental” means: serving as an original or generating source. The original source of our country was the genocide against Native Americans and the enslavement of Black people. So you literally can’t teach about the founding of this country or its long history without talking about systemic racism.

In Missouri they proposed a bill that would ban teaching the 1619 project—which frames US history in terms of the enslavement of African people who were brought to North American colonies in 1619. And it bans the Zinn Education Project. And it bans the Black Lives Matter at School curriculum.

But I want to tell you all here today that the fact is they wouldn’t be passing these laws to ban the teaching of structural racism and oppression if they weren’t scared of something.

So, what are they scared of?

They are scared of the fact that activists built the broadest protest in US history over the spring and summer in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which shook this country and exposed the structural nature of anti-Blackness to many.

They are scared of the fact that [the] BLM at School movement tripled in size this school year.

They are sacred of solidarity. The bill in Arkansas actually suggests banning the teaching of solidarity!

And they are certainly scared of students who can think critically.

The summer uprising was led by youth. The media likes to talk about learning loss from summer break or from remote schooling, but the truth is the students have learned—and taught—the nation so much about the nature of structural racism. These youth who can think for themselves and challenge injustice really scare racists.

But informed Black people have always scared racists.

This isn’t the first time that frightened racists have tried to ban education. The first law of this kind was a slave code enacted in 1740 in reaction to the Stono Slave Rebellion 1739 in South Carolina and it made writing illegal for enslaved African people.

But from the time it was illegal to be literate until today, Black people have always led a struggle for racial justice and education.

Enslaved Black people snuck off plantations to teach each other how to read and write, even though it was illegal—they called it “stealing a meeting.” The punishment could be maiming or even death if you were caught reading or writing, but Black people did it anyway.

During the Reconstruction era, Black educators built the public school system across the south because they knew there was no full emancipation without education.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Schools were organized, especially during the “Freedom Summer” campaign of 1964. During Freedom Summer, more than three thousand Black students attended a Freedom School—and the final exam was going and registering to vote or organizing others into the movement—not bubbling in answers on standardized tests.

Then there was the proliferation of the Afrocentric schools around the country in the 1970s and the Black Panther Party’s Liberation Schools—like the Oakland Community School that was run by Ericka Huggins.

Today we have the Black Lives Matter at School and other movements for racial justice in education.

It’s important to look at this history to help us understand the way forward. But I want to be clear about something. While today’s racists may not be so bold as to ban the reading of the word—as they did for my ancestors—they do want to ban the reading of the world.

But I am telling you all that I am going to teach my students about how to read the world —because it desperately needs changing. And I refuse to be intimidated from teaching about the people throughout history who have helped make these needed changes. I am going to teach my students about the ideas and practice of people like Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, and Claudia Jones, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker, and Barbara Smith, and Angela Davis. Because a world where kids learn about these freedom fighters and put their ideas in action will be a world with less oppression and more empathy, more dignity, more equity, more democracy.

I’m pledging to you all today that I will refuse to lie to kids—no matter what the laws tells me to do. And I’m so glad I’m not alone.

Jesse Hagopian is a high school teacher in Seattle and has taught for over a decade at Garfield High School–the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test.  Jesse is an editor for the social justice periodical Rethinking Schools, is the co-editor of the books, Black Lives Matter at School, Teaching for Black LivesTeacher Unions and Social Justiceand is the editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Jesse serves as the Director of the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award, is an organizer with the Black Lives Matter at School movement, and is founding member of Social Equity Educators (SEE).

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