I completed my elementary school years in Bogotá, Colombia when my father served at the Embassy as Public Affairs Officer in the United States Information Service. The American-curriculum school, Colegio Nuevo Granada, didn’t have room for both a second-grader (my sister) and a fourth-grader (me) when we arrived in 1963, so we were enrolled at The English School. It followed the British curriculum, including end-of-year essay examinations that I imagined were graded by stern women in tweed suits hunched over our papers like Andean vultures on a dead cow.
Along with acquiring slight British accents, my sister and I were schooled in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and, as I announced at dinner one night, “how we lost the colonies.” My mother could only shake her head. “Honey, we are the colonies.”
When we moved to one of those original colonies, Maryland, a few years later, I traded my posh accent for a Southern twang and learned the Pledge of Allegiance. Children are resilient. Eventually, we develop our own filters through which to see the world.
But, what if we are simply never exposed to an idea at all? That is the case with the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. The official denial of the horror by the city’s white government, and the danger Black Tulsans would have put themselves in by daring to speak the truth, kept this awful story under wraps for nearly a century.
Although it is perhaps the most dramatic criminally racist event to be so hidden, it is but one shameful story among our country’s undeniable atrocities perpetrated upon Black Americans, the descendants of men and women transported from Africa against their will and force into slavery. As Tom Hanks wrote in his June 6 essay in The New York Times:
The truth about Tulsa, and the repeated violence by some white Americans against Black Americans, was systematically ignored, perhaps because it was regarded as too honest, too painful a lesson for our young white ears. So, our predominantly white schools didn’t teach it, our mass appeal works of historical fiction didn’t enlighten us, and my chosen industry didn’t take on the subject in films and shows until recently.Tom Hanks, opinion piece in the June 6, 2021 New York Times
Closer to my home, the Palm Beach Public Schools Board attempted to address systemic racism in its draft equity statement, which proclaimed the county’s public school system “is committed to dismantling structures rooted in white advantage.” Parents forced the removal of “white advantage.” In a June 2 opinion piece in The Palm Beach Post, Jan Tuckwood, a former reporter who touring historic homes of the South for an upcoming project, objected to sanitizing the difficult message.
Discussing ‘white advantage’ creates discomfort. Arguing over the words ‘serve’ and ‘slave’ is unpleasant. It’s easier to shut up and shut down when words upset us — but if we do, we miss the whole truth. We must keep talking through the hard stuff, or we’ll never be cured.Jan Tuckwood, The Palm Beach Post
One of my favorite expressions about true love is that we love not because we don’t know the truth about one another, but that we know the truth and still choose to love.
If being ‘woke’ means knowing the full story of your community and country, including the systemic racism that still shapes them, then every thinking adult should be. How can you love a place while knowing the crimes that helped produce it? By relentlessly confronting hypocrisy and remaining ‘woke’ to the transformational power of American idealsMichael Gerson, The Washington Post