Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Sins of Omission

"American history is longer, larger, more  various, more beautiful, and more terrible than  anything anyone has ever said about it."  -- James Baldwin

We all have moments in life that stick with us, moments when we realize how we’ve been betrayed or lied to by the various people with power in our lives. I still remember the day when I realized that the Tooth Fairy wasn’t real and that, by extension, neither was the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. Some of these realizations are harmless and just a part of growing up.

Other realizations are more pivotal because the implications are earth-shattering and often reveal more insidious betrayals. Often these realizations don’t revolve around outright lies but sins of omission. One of the earliest such moments for me was in high school, in the hallway outside of a classroom. That’s when I first heard about the Orangeburg Massacre. Not in the classroom, but in the hallway. 

Even though I was born and raised in Orangeburg County and educated in Orangeburg County public schools, I never recall hearing about the Orangeburg Massacre from a teacher inside an actual classroom. Once this teacher, an African American man, mentioned it to me, I began to read about it and a lifetime of lies began to fall away. 

I imagine most of my Black classmates knew about the Orangeburg Massacre, but it certainly wasn’t talked about by Orangeburg Whites. I had even spent quite a bit of time on the campus of South Carolina State University (College at that time) while growing up, but still I had never connected the building named Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center to any actual event. I guess, growing up in a small town where half of the buildings, streets, and monuments seemed to be named after long-dead (usually Confederate) White men, I just stopped making connections between these names and the people they represented.

But this isn’t really a post about the Orangeburg Massacre, although I hope anyone reading this who is unfamiliar with this pivotal moment of resistance will take the time to read about it. There’s certainly far more available now than there was when I first heard about it in high school (just one book then).

And, although I think about them often, this isn’t a post about the three young Black men who died on February 8, 1968: Henry Ezekial Smith, 18; Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr., 18; and Delano Herman Middleton, 17 (pictured above, left to right). No one ever served time for their deaths or the many injuries of the other students involved in the protests. One of the projects I am working on (in all of my spare time) is a narrative non-fiction collection for teens about the young people we have lost in this country, names now largely ignored and forgotten in the curriculum (if they were ever there to begin with). Look for that post-tenure…

Instead, this post is about the need, every day of every month, for all of us in libraries and education to make sure that we aren’t part of this legacy of omission. We still need Black History Month and all of the other history, heritage, and appreciation months that shine a brighter light, 28-31 days each year, on the stories and counternarratives of people of color, Native peoples, women, LGBT people, etc. But that is not enough!

Every day we have to make an effort in our libraries and classrooms to look at whose stories we're telling and whose we aren’t. This applies to every single book order, classroom library purchase, book display, bulletin board, brochure, bibliography, blog post, storytime, booktalk, etc.

In my classes, I have students read a selection from James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. We talk about trailblazers including (but not limited to) E.J. Josey, Augusta Baker, Charlemae Rollins, Pura Belpré, Arna Bontemps, Virginia Lacy Jones, Arnulfo Trejo, and Sandy Berman. Students read the work of contemporary activists and advocates in the field, including Debbie Reese, Cecily Walker, Edi Campbell, Nicole Cooke, Chris Bourg, Ellen Oh, Hannah Gomez, and Max Macias (and many of the blogs linked on this page). If we’re lucky enough, we even get to have some of these people join us in the (virtual) classroom.

When we talk about publishers, I have an honest conversation with students about why I focus much of that conversation on small and independent presses. We have great conversations about the supply chain in publishing, about how vendors work, and about the time and effort required to actually have a balanced collection (not just a “balanced” collection based on what the Big 5 are publishing and your vendors have in stock).

I do all of this (and lots of other things) in an effort to help students explore how their pasts are also laden with these sins of omission. I also do it in an effort to help students become (or sometimes become even more) aware of how our daily decisions can either maintain the status quo in libraries and classrooms or can counteract and subvert this status quo.

Maybe one day we will get to the point where including different stories, voices, and perspectives becomes second nature in our daily library and classroom decisions. Maybe one day the major publishers, review sources, and vendors will be more reflective of the rich diversity (of all forms) of the United States. But we’re not there yet.

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