Prejudice, Power, and Politics in Ed

Last Wednesday I was excited to participate in the #AllOutMay1 day in South Carolina. Our elected officials have been trying to pass some education legislation that many educators in our area do not believe benefits the teachers, students, or parents of our state. The biggest issue is class size. One Representative told the House that the average class size is 14:1 which is, well, a fib. From what we can tell this number is derived by dividing the number of students by the every adult in the building – even those not actually in a classroom. There are also concerns about low numbers of mental health professionals, low pay and its impact on teacher retention, and improved working conditions. Bernie even tweeted in support!

If you want more details find me on twitter (@MrPowley) or check out @SCforEd or #AllOutMay1.

I brought my 9 year old to the rally so he could see and participate in civic action. I really think he learned more on Wednesday than he would have just reading about a rally. We made signs and mine quotes the 21st social studies Literacy Standard because our Secretary of Education said that we were “walking out on our students”. I wanted our representatives to know my reason for marching was FOR our students and that it was a teachable moment.

I took A LOT of pictures.

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This picture was taken when we finally made it to the rally. My boy’s sign says “Children, Children What do you see? I see Teachers standing up for me”. Mine says I AM teaching – modeling informed participatory citizenship.

Here is another outside the SC State House after the rally. He was very excite to be participating! He had two signs and this one is a quote from Hamilton – one of our favorite CDs right now.

Wait a minute…. Speaking of History… I know that statue…

 

Crap…

That is the memorial for the Confederate Dead Soldiers…

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Oh…

Oh no…

That statue is in the pathway to the South Carolina state house and it is honoring dead Confederate Soldiers.

This is what the Inscription above my son’s head says.

“This monument perpetuates the memory of those who, true to the instincts of their birth, faithful to the teachings of their fathers, constant in their love for the state, died in the performance of their duty . . . who have glorified a fallen cause by the simple manhood of their lives, the patient endurance of suffering, and the heroism of death . . . and who in the dark hours of imprisonment, in the hopelessness of the hospital, in the short sharp agony of the field, found support and consolation in the belief that at home they would not be forgotten.”

Below this inscription we learn that the statue was dedicated in 1879.

There is so much to unpack here.

First, there is a notion that removing statues is somehow removing history. I wholeheartedly disagree. These statues were erected not to tell “History” which is an evidence based interpretation of the past that can and is constantly growing and changing. No, these statues are a call to “Memory” and have become sacred objects. These message and intent of these objects do not able to change even as we learn and grow as a society. This was not intended to convey an evidence based interpretation of the past nor is there a chance for a open public debate. To question the statue itself is often criticized as an attempt to erase history! Note that this statue was erected in 1879 which was the year Reconstruction ended. The year that protections for the Freedman was removed. The year that Jim Crow segregation and lynch mobs were made the law of the southland. (I am not letting the Northern states off the hook here) This statue that was meant to remind everyone of the power of white supremacy and to become a piece of propaganda for future generations. This is all made plain with the line “faithful to the teachings of their fathers”. That is not a historic marker but rather a marker designed to instill a devotion to the sacred and therefore unchanging memories of the dead soldiers.

Second this is an outstanding example of Lost Cause Mythology. Critically analyze what the statue is actually says and what it refuses to say. The viewer is supposed to honor the Confederate dead soldiers for their sacrifice, for their Bravery, and for their Patriotism. Notice it does not give the same honor to the loyal United States soldiers. It does not mention the Freedman (who were legally made second class citizens by 1879). It doesn’t mention the actual cause of the war which was perpetuating the institution of slavery. It mentions the Patriotism of the soldiers but not this is not a reference to love for the United States of America! No! they are honoring Patriotism and loyalty to soldiers that fought for a rebellion that attempted to overthrow a legitimately elected United States government and was defeated in a Civil War that killed roughly 7.5% of the American Population only 14 years prior! Since there is no evidence of any Black Confederate soldiers it overlooks forced labor of the millions of enslaved peoples; some of which were taken to battle to serve as body men for their enslavers, many dying as a result.

This statue uses the Confederate War dead to promote the system of White Supremacy that was established with the end of Reconstruction. The Emancipationist interpretation of the Civil War was ignored when the US Government abandoned the Freedman of the South at the end of Reconstruction in 1877.  Instead the white northerners and southerners had a reunion in 1877 that was promoted by ignoring the Black history of the era and allowed for the establishment of Jim Crow throughout the south (See, it’s not all southern systemic racism). Statues like this became symbols and educational propaganda. When one comes to the state house they most likely do not critically analyze the context of the monument. The most likely intent of the builders and most likely outcome for the viewer is that the stunning visual is seen, the mournful inscription is read, and the viewer is indoctrinated to the “noble sacrifice” of the Confederate Soldier.

We are in the midst of a national debate about what should be done with Confederate Statues. There is an argument that has seemingly gathered strength that to tear down the monuments is to erase History. This is an absurd position. By removing a statue you are not removing History. History is an informed reconstruction of the past based on evidence and part of an ongoing public debate. Statues are a monument to Memory – resistant to change and is based on belief more than evidence. Look at that inscription again: “faithful to the teachings of their fathers”. History is not a faith – it is a discipline that revels not in obedience but in questioning and is willing to change its core understandings with new evidence and debate. All history is revisionist. It is important to note as well that these statues are not telling the History of the Confederacy but instead are primary sources in the History of the early Jim Crow era. Removing the statues would do nothing to harm the History of the Civil War. What it would do is remove a tool used to “educate” people about the mythical Lost Cause that was used by southerners to justify the Civil War. We know the History can change. In the late 19th century the Emancipationist interpretation of Reconstruction which supported the Freedman and the rights that were protected was changed by the myth of the lost cause. The Dunning school of the early 20th century supported this Reconstruction era interpretation claiming that the Freedman were poor, uneducated, and a burden on the southern governments. This interpretation dominated the era and can be seen in movies like the 1920s Birth of a Nation. The Dunning school was shown to be a to be a terrible interpretation and was revised in the 1980s into a Civil Rights framed story but the dregs of the racist interpretation can still be found in some textbooks! 


 

I apologize for that long tangent about History… But let me explain the rest of my day at the State House.

My son and I walked around the building with one of my colleagues and, for all of its faults, the State House is still the center of the South Carolina government. We don’t often get to go to Columbia so I wanted my 9 year old to take in the seat of our state government. I mentioned that the State House is surrounded by Icons to white supremacy. We saw the bronze stars that mark where United States military shot cannon balls into the building during the Civil War. We saw statues of other flawed SC figures like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, Strom Thurmond, and Wade Hampton III as well as markers to Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis. There is one African American memorial dedicated in the early 2000s which is in fact pretty nice.

We were also able to go into the State House where we were able to watch the State Senate while it was in session. My 9 year old was able to watch as a resolution was passed making May 1st Healthy Mother’s Day in South Carolina. I am a liberal so believe in the importance of government and policy and saw this as an opportunity for my son see the machinations of government.

The entire day was about education and with a rally with 10,000 of my SC colleagues (out of 53,000 teachers in SC) hopefully we sent a message to that Legislature. As we were walking through the lobby area I was stunned to see this memorial:

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Doesn’t seem all that impressive – but…

First thing to note are the flags. The left hand flag is South Carolina’s state flag but the one on the left is probably unfamiliar. My colleague thought it was an American Revolution era flag. It is not. It is one of several iterations of the Confederate flag. The Battle flag is the most familiar version (and has its own anti-Civil Rights history in SC) but the one on this stone is another version.

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The inscription was what made my jaw drop and was the reason for this blog post.

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Again, notices the date – 1917. Well within the Jim Crow Era. The message of the stone is how ardently Mary M. Snowden fought to “keep his (the noble Confederate soldier) memory sacred”  and how “by her toil for the nurture and education of his daughters” won admiration. The implication is that the education was about the nobility of the soldiers sacrifice in fighting for the creation and continuance of the Confederacy. This is a stone, dedicated nearly 50 years after the end of the Civil War and 20 years after the woman’s death, honors her fight to educate children into believing the Lost Cause mythology. A mythology that led to Jim Crow Segregation. A mythology that attempted (mostly successfully) to undo the gains of Reconstruction for the Freedman of the South for nearly a century. A mythology that would go on to infect the North as well as the South and would keep harming the African Americans well into the modern era.

This stone is 5 feet from the entrance to the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Education is Political.


The SC for ED organization fought back against our Secretary of Education Molly Spearman when the Secretary suggested teachers were “walking out on their obligations” by calling this rally a “Day of Reflection”. As I reflect on this day I was proud of South Carolina teachers taking their contractually allowed personal days to stand up for what they believe is right for the students of South Carolina.

A week after that walk around the State House though I continue to reflect on the fact that the heart of our South Carolina government is surrounded by icons to White Supremacy. I already knew much of this but what I saw on the marble plaque honoring a teacher dedicated to the values of the Lost Cause and segregation made me reflect on the power and prejudice in education. All teaching is political (this is not my unique insight). Teachers have challenge issues of white nationalism. I want to say it is a growing issue but slavery was a founding principle and segregation was the law of the land for over a century. Yes we elected a black President but that does not erase the long history of injustice and since 2016 there seems to be a growing permissiveness to White Supremacy. We cannot give into the desire to “just teach my standards”. Accepting the status quo is teaching a political lesson even as one tries to avoid politics. The message is that the status quo is acceptable and it is not.

I am not perfect in this regard and will always be in the process of growth and understanding. I am a white male teacher and will need to constantly work at being an ally and accomplice for racial justice. This is not intended to pat my own back either and apologize if it comes off that way. This is a call to my fellow white teachers to be better and take ownership in our growth. In 2015 (the latest stats I could find) my school district employed 2,772 teachers of which 491 (17%) were white male teachers and 2013 (73%) were white female teachers (90% white overall). As a state those numbers are 7582/49922 (15%) white male and 31,715 (64%) white female (nearly 80% white overall). These numbers do not reflect the demographics of our state and even if they did it would not excuse antipathy towards social injustice. It is up to us to be better, be aware of our own possible prejudices, and to teach anti-racism and anti-bias. To do nothing is just as politically relevant as to promote culturally responsive values. Here are a few things I am trying to do as I continue on my personal journey.

  1. Learn and grow in understanding of privilege, justice, equity, and culturally aware practices.
  2. Call out personal and systemic injustice.
  3. Listen to and promote non-white voices.

It’s time to put in the work.


In an effort to pass the mic please check out these sites, and books. These were titles given to me as started this process.

I know that I am missing a lot that has been informative to me but this is a start. Maybe we can get some more suggestions flowing in the comments…

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