Glossing over the Truth about our History

Marian Wright Edelman | 9/6/2012, 2:50 p.m.

I often say to people who come to the Schomburg that the crisis of today is a consequence of not one, but two generations born after the Civil Rights Movement who have been deliberately kept from their history. -- Khalil Gibran Muhammad, June 2012

When Khalil Muhammad speaks people listen. He is a scholar, historian, and the director of the New York Public Library's renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Muhammad knows a lot about the importance of being mindful of learning from history. When he spoke about equality of opportunity to 1800 young leaders at a Children's Defense Fund's Haley Farm leadership training session in June, he explained that our nation is testing the old saying: "Those who can't remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

He said: "Because of individual Black achievement, some today believe that we have finally reached the promised land of a colorblind equal opportunity America, and yet--and here's the history lesson--this is not the first time we've been to the mountaintop. Five generations ago, many Americans believed that the heavy lifting of building racial democracy had been completed..."

As it turned out, the golden Reconstruction Era just after the Civil War was just the beginning in a long string of false hopes that eventually became unfulfilled expectations. Muhammad noted that observers have continued to make the same mistake of unfounded optimism about racial equality over and over in the decades since then. Meanwhile, children are not being taught about past battles in the struggle for equality, even relatively recent ones--as shown by the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress that found only 2 percent of the nation's high school seniors demonstrated basic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement, including Brown v. Board of Education.

Many students don't learn about other pieces of the Black experience such as the full horror of slavery at all, and "by the time they enter college they don't recall much Black history that wasn't about Rosa Parks' tired feet or King's dream." History is being re-written and kept from our children, replaced by a hazy and sanitized version of events that can make it sound as if the fight for racial equality is already over with a happy ending rather than a continuing struggle demanding continuing vigilance. He insisted, "Too often in this country change and progress have been short-lived and history has been forgotten . . . We must have a firm commitment to teaching young people the history of racism--not as a static, unchanging evil, but as a constantly evolving system of beliefs, practices, and policies that are capable of adapting to new circumstances, including a Black president.

Each generation must relearn the past in light of the present, and each generation must discern for itself the relative challenges that discrimination and inequality present for its survival. . . This rise and fall -- this two steps forward for three steps backward -- is not inevitable unless we choose to forget the lessons we've learned from the past."