Book Reviewed by Hank Bitten, NJCSS Executive Director
I am a history teacher who wanted to learn about the perspectives of racial inequality and social justice as a result of the events during the summer of 2020. Although I have a strong content background in the history of African Americans, slavery, reconstruction, prejudice and discrimination, constitutional law, the economics of poverty, and human rights, I never taught a course on social inequality, criminal justice, or how to address problems in this area.
A former student, Dr. Christopher Borgen, who is a law professor at St. John’s University, introduced me to the Equal Justice Initiative and its founder, Bryan Stevenson. After visiting the EJI website and learning from others that Bryan Stevenson was a past speaker at an NCSS convention, I read his book, all 66 pages in about 30 minutes!
The book was different from what I was expecting. When I read the description on the Amazon website, I was expecting stories of convicted felons on death row who were falsely accused and then represented by Dr. Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. Instead, I discovered that I shared the same hopes, values, and mission as Bryan Stevenson, even though our life experiences were very different. The things we shared were loving grandmothers, disappointing high school educational experiences, religious faith, and a calling to help people by making a difference in their lives. My world view that we are placed into situations by circumstance (or divine intervention) was reinforced in the 66 pages of what I read.
Bryan Stevenson lived in a rural town in southern Delaware from 1959 until he graduated from Eastern University (PA) in 1977. He attended the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where he earned a Master of Arts degree in Public Policy and a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School. After moving to Atlanta, he was an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in 1989 he founded the non-profit law center, Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. His life’s work is committed to eliminating life-without-parole sentences and capital punishment for juveniles. The Equal Justice Initiative have won reversals or release for 135 wrongly convicted death row prisoners.
The EJI opened the Legacy Museum in 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama to focus on racial inequality and the challenges of race discrimination in the criminal justice system in the United States. The current digital exhibits on racial justice, Reconstruction, and criminal justice reform are informative.
As a white, middle class, educated person living in a suburban community, my wife and I taught our children and now we are teaching our grandchildren that the police are your friend. We instill in them that if you are ever in trouble to seek the advice of the police who are easily recognized by their uniforms. This is teachable because all of us deserve to be treated equally! The book provides examples of how “our society applies a presumption of dangerousness and guilt to young black men, and that’s what leads to wrongful arrests ad wrongful convictions and wrongful death sentences, not just wrongful shootings.” The example of injustice is the story of Walter McMillian who was sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of Ronda Morrison, an eighteen-year old white woman. He was treated unfairly because he was targeted, the victim of false testimonies, convicted of a life sentence by an all-white jury, and then this sentence was changed to the death sentence by judicial override. This short book emphasizes the power of mercy and redemption and how simple interventions based on perseverance can lead to justice and goodness and change lives.
The K-12 educational experience of Bryan Stevenson gave me a different perspective of my own experiences. I was educated in the Paterson Public Schools from 1952-1964. I went to overcrowded schools, we were attacked by black teenagers from the other side of the real estate dividing line, lacked a college preparatory experience even though I was in the Academic program, and skipped two years graduating at age 16. Bryan Stevenson’s experience was similar and yet opposite. Although he went to school a decade later, his mother and grandmother were anxious every day about his experiences in an integrated school. Both of our mothers and grandparents were influential in teaching us to read (newspapers and encyclopedias) and we were both the first in our families to attend and graduate from college.
The second perspective I gained from this book was first introduced to me in Race Matters by Cornell West. I read this book in the 1990s and the narrative demonstrated by African Americans through all the years of segregation, insecurity, and prejudice is one of love, hope, and a desire for acceptance. During the current national dialogue of racial inequality and social injustice, I think back to my first years as a teacher at Martin Luther High School in Maspeth, Queens. This was the year of the strike by teachers in the New York Public Schools and the year that neighborhood schools ended and busing to integrated schools began. As a new teacher, I was instructed to start an African American History course, even though college courses in this field were rare and not part of my education. As a result, I learned with my students, enrollment increased to multiple sections, and my students taught me about their experiences in East New York, (and other communities), threats against them on public transportation, and the difficulty in finding work. I also learned about the experiences of their parents in the workforce at a time when the Bakke decision by the Supreme Court challenged the validity of minority quotas.
The third perspective, the one that motivated me to write this book review, was the role and influence of the church and the driving values that motivated the life work and decisions of Bryan Stevenson. I discovered in this narrative the importance of social and emotional learning, that solutions are always a process rather than an answer, and the importance of teachers in educating students.
It is important for teachers to understand the narrative of fear. This is evident in the restrictions of the plantation, denial of literacy, and Jim Crow segregation. It is also evident in the classification of drug addicts and users as criminals instead of individuals with a sickness or mental health condition. Fear is a powerful force in the human condition. We are taught to fear the consequences of breaking laws and rules as well as fearing failure.
It is equally important for teachers to teach and be a voice of hope and help. The social studies teachers I am privileged to know want to make a positive difference in the lives of their students. This is why civic education and historical context is important to them because the context supports equality, freedom, respect, justice, respect, and human rights. These are the threads that weave every day in the lessons of ancient societies, the Enlightenment, totalitarian rulers, colonial America, abolition, suffrage, Reconstruction, the New Deal, Fair Deal, Great Society, and the American Dream.
The impressive personal story of Bryan Stevenson is one of notable accomplishments but the difference he has been able to make in the lives of people through the Equal Justice Initiative is very similar to the impactful stories of teachers. Although our calling is to teach social studies, we are also teachers of life skills, the extraordinary lessons of handling crises, and how to persevere through the frustrations of declining test scores and disappointments. Teachers are always modeling resilience, perseverance, and help.
Another lesson that was reinforced for me through this book was the concept of leadership. Leadership in the classroom is demonstrated by getting our students to support common goals of listening to others, searching for the truth, asking questions, doing our best, and supporting each other. Bryan Stevenson also includes speaking out for what is right! This includes making our classrooms and schools free from fear and anger, free from complacency and ignorance, and places where students feel comfortable to ask questions, learn different perspectives, and respect the competing ideas that are inherent in a democracy.
There are many lessons throughout this book and they will speak to each person in a different way. Regarding civic engagement, it is important to follow the calling in one’s heart in addition to their cognitive knowledge of what needs to be changed. It also means to think small when there are big problems. Bryan Stevenson lives in a state with a very high poverty rate and a record of harsh punishments against people. The lesson I came away with is to make a difference where I can, even if it is in the lives of just a few. For your students, let them know that they are witnesses to everything they see – bullying, sexism, injustice, inequality, favoritism, patronizing, cheating, lying, exaggerating, complacency, etc.
The book takes only a few hours to read but the messages in the book will last a long time!
This dramatization designed for classrooms explores the lives and words of freedom-seekers from New York and the South and Black abolitionist who fought to end slavery in the United States. Each speaker is a real historic figure and addresses the audience in his or her own words.
Background: The Dutch West India Company (WIC) founded New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan Island in 1624. The name was changed to New York in honor of the Duke of York after Great Britain took control over the small settlement in 1664. The Duke of York was the younger brother of the King of England and a future king himself. He was also the head of the Royal African Company, which was engaged in the transAtlantic slave trade. Many enslaved Africans were branded with the letters RAC, the company’s initials, or DY, which stood for Duke of York.
The first eleven enslaved Africans were brought to New Amsterdam in 1626 to work for the WIC. The first slave auction in what would become New York City was probably held in 1655. The city Common Council established the Wall Street slave market in 1711. The last enslaved Africans in New York were freed on July 4, 1827, which meant slavery existed in New Amsterdam/New York for over 200 years, which is longer than there has been freedom in the city.
This play introduces African Americans, some born enslaved and some born free, who helped transform New York City and state into a center of resistance to slavery. It also tells about the ugly truth of slavery in New Amsterdam and New York. Each of the speakers in this play is a real historical figure and the words that they utter are from their speeches and writing or from contemporary newspaper accounts.
The play opens with a petition from Emanuel and Reytory Pieterson. They were free Blacks in colonial New Amsterdam. In 1661, they petitioned the Dutch government to recognize that their adopted son, eighteen-year old Anthony van Angola, was a free man because his parents were free when he was born and he was raised by free people.
Venture Smith was born in Africa, kidnapped, sold into slavery, and transported, first to Barbados, and then Fisher’s Island off the east coast of Long Island. In a memoir, published in 1796, Smith described brutal treatment while enslaved. Jupiter Hammon was the first Black poet published in the United States. Austin Steward was brought as a slave from Virginia to upstate New York where he secured his freedom and established himself as a merchant. Peter Williams, Jr. was an Episcopal priest who organized the St. Philip’s African Church in New York City. Thomas James was born a slave in Canajoharie, New York and later became an important figure in the AME church. John B. Russwurm published the first African American newspaper in the United States. William Hamilton was co-founder of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief. James McCune Smith was the first African American to obtain a medical degree. David Ruggles was a founder and secretary of the New York Committee of Vigilance.
Samuel Ringgold Ward’s family escaped enslavement in Maryland when he was a child. He became an abolitionist, newspaper editor, and Congregationalist minister. Henry Highland Garnet also escaped to the freedom with his family when he was a child and he became one of the most radical Black abolitionists. Solomon Northup was a free Black man in upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. After twelve years of enslavement he was able to contact his family and secured his freedom. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, Frederick Douglass became a leading abolitionist orator and newspaper editor. Jermain Loguen was an abolitionist, teacher, minister and Underground Railroad “station master” in Syracuse.
After gaining her freedom when New York State abolished slavery, Isabella Bomfree became Sojourner Truth, an itinerant minister and abolitionist and feminist speaker. Harriet Jacobs wrote about her life enslaved in North Carolina and the discrimination suffered by free Blacks in the North. James Pennington opposed segregation in New York and championed education for African American children. Elizabeth Jennings was a free woman of color who challenged segregation on New York City street cars. William Wells Brown, a former freedom-seeker, worked as a steamboatman on Lake Erie helping other freedom-seekers escape to Canada. Harriet Tubman was the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a writer and an activist for African Americans and woman.
New York’s African Americans Demand Freedom
1. Reytory Pieterson: Reytory and Emanuel Pieterson were free Blacks in colonial New Amsterdam. In 1661 they petitioned the Dutch government to recognize that eighteen-year old Anthony van Angola, who they raised after the death of his parents, was born free and should legally be recognized as a free man.
Reytory, in the year 1643, on the third of August, stood as godparent or witness at the Christian baptism of a little son of one Anthony van Angola, begotten with his own wife named Louise, the which aforementioned Anthony and Louise were both free Negroes; and about four weeks thereafter the aforementioned Louise came to depart this world, leaving behind the aforementioned little son named Anthony, the which child your petitioner out of Christian affection took to herself, and with the fruits of her hands’ bitter toil she reared him as her own child, and up to the present supported him, taking all motherly solicitude and care for him . . .Your petitioners….very respectfully address themselves to you, noble and right honorable lords, humbly begging that your noble honors consent to grant a stamp in this margin of this document . . . declaring] that he himself, being of free parents, reared and brought up without burden or expense of the West Indian Company . . . may be declared by your noble honors to be a free person.
2. Venture Smith: Venture Smith was born in Africa, kidnapped, sold into slavery, and transported, first to Barbados and then Fisher’s Island off the east coast of Long Island. When he was twenty-two years old, Smith married and attempted to escape from bondage. He eventually surrendered to his master, but was permitted to earn money to purchase his freedom and the freedom of his family. He published his memoirs in 1796.
My master having set me off my business to perform that day and then left me to perform it, his son came up to me in the course of the day, big with authority, and commanded me very arrogantly to quit my present business and go directly about what he should order me. I replied to him that my master had given me so much to perform that day, and that I must faithfully complete it in that time. He then broke out into a great rage, snatched a pitchfork and went to lay me over the head therewith, but I as soon got another and defended myself with it, or otherwise he might have murdered me in his outrage. He immediately called some people who were within hearing at work for him, and ordered them to take his hair rope and come and bind me with it. They all tried to bind me, but in vain, though there were three assistants in number. I recovered my temper, voluntarily caused myself to be bound by the same men who tried in vain before, and carried before my young master, that he might do what he pleased with me. He took me to a gallows made for the purpose of hanging cattle on, and suspended me on it. I was released and went to work after hanging on the gallows about an hour.
3. Jupiter Hammon:Jupiter Hammon, who was enslaved on Long Island, was the first Black poet published in the United States. He addressed this statement to the African population of New York in 1786, soon after national independence.
Liberty is a great thing, and worth seeking for, if we can get it honestly, and by our good conduct, prevail on our masters to set us free. That liberty is a great thing we may know from our own feelings, and we may likewise judge so from the conduct of the white people, in the late war. How much money has been spent, and how many lives have been lost, to defend their liberty. I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks, and to pity us.
4. Austin Steward: Austin Steward was born in 1793 in Prince William County, Virginia. As a youth, he was brought to upstate New York where he eventually secured his freedom and established himself as a merchant in Rochester.
We traveled northward, through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and a portion of New York, to Sodus Bay, where we halted for some time. We made about twenty miles per day, camping out every night, and reached that place after a march of twenty days. Every morning the overseer called the roll, when every slave must answer to his or her name, felling to the ground with his cowhide, any delinquent who failed to speak out in quick time.
After the roll had been called, and our scanty breakfast eaten, we marched on again, our company presenting the appearance of some numerous caravan crossing the desert of Sahara. When we pitched our tents for the night, the slaves must immediately set about cooking not their supper only, but their breakfast, so as to be ready to start early the next morning, when the tents were struck; and we proceeded on our journey in this way to the end . . . My master . . . hired me out to a man by the name of Joseph Robinson . . . He was . . .tyrannical and cruel to those in his employ; and having hired me as a “slave boy,” he appeared to feel at full liberty to wreak his brutal passion on me at any time, whether I deserved rebuke or not; . . . he would frequently draw from the cart-tongue a heavy iron pin, and beat me over the head with it, so unmercifully that he frequently sent the blood flowing over my scanty apparel, and from that to the ground, before he could feel satisfied.
5. Peter Williams, Jr.: Reverend Peter Williams, Jr. was an Episcopal priest who organized the St. Philip’s African Church in New York City. In 1808, Williams delivered this prayer commemorating the outlawing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by the United States.
Oh, God! we thank thee, that thou didst condescend to listen to the cries of Africa’s wretched sons; and that thou didst interfere in their behalf. At thy call humanity sprang forth, and espoused the cause of the oppressed; one hand she employed in drawing from their vitals the deadly arrows of injustice; and the other in holding a shield, to defend them from fresh assaults; and at that illustrious moment, when the sons of 76 pronounced these United States free and independent; when the spirit of patriotism, erected a temple sacred to liberty; when the inspired voice of Americans first uttered those noble sentiments, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; and when the bleeding African, lifting his fetters, exclaimed, “am I not a man and a brother”; then with redoubled efforts, the angel of humanity strove to restore to the African race, the inherent rights of man. . . . May the time speedily commence, when Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands; when the sun of liberty shall beam resplendent on the whole African race; and its genial influences, promote the luxuriant growth of knowledge and virtue.
6. Thomas James: Reverend Thomas James was born enslaved in Canajoharie, New York. When he was eight years-old, James was separated from his mother, brother and sister when they were sold away to another owner. He escaped from slavery when he was seventeen. He later became an important figure in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
While I was still in the seventeenth year of my age, Master Kimball was killed in a runaway accident; and at the administrator’s sale I was sold with the rest of the property . . .My new master had owned me but a few months when he sold me, or rather traded me, . . . in exchange for a yoke of steers, a colt and some additional property. I remained with Master Hess from March until June of the same year, when I ran away. My master had worked me hard, and at last undertook to whip me. This led me to seek escape from slavery. I arose in the night, and taking the newly staked line of the Erie canal for my route, traveled along it westward until, about a week later, I reached the village of Lockport. No one had stopped me in my flight. Men were at work digging the new canal at many points, but they never troubled themselves even to question me. I slept in barns at night and begged food at farmers’ houses along my route. At Lockport a colored man showed me the way to the Canadian border. I crossed the Niagara at Youngstown on the ferry-boat, and was free!
7. John B. Russwurm: Freedom’s Journal was the first African American newspaper published in the United States. It was founded and edited by Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm in New York City in 1827. Its editorials stressed the fight against slavery and racial discrimination.
We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly, though in the estimation of some mere trifles; for though there are many in society who exercise towards us benevolent feelings; still (with sorrow we confess it) there are others who make it their business to enlarge upon the least trifle, which tends to the discredit of any person of color; and pronounce anathemas and denounce our whole body for the misconduct of this guilty one . . . Education being an object of the highest importance to the welfare of society, we shall endeavor to present just and adequate views of it, and to urge upon our brethren the necessity and expediency of training their children, while young, to habits of industry, and thus forming them for becoming useful members of society . . . The civil rights of a people being of the greatest value, it shall ever be our duty to vindicate our brethren, when oppressed; and to lay the case before the public. We shall also urge upon our brethren, (who are qualified by the laws of the different states) the expediency of using their elective franchise.
8. William Hamilton: William Hamilton was a carpenter and co-founder of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief. On July 4, 1827 he delivered an Emancipation Day Address celebrating the end of slavery in New York State.
“LIBERTY! kind goddess! brightest of the heavenly deities that guide the affairs or men. Oh Liberty! where thou art resisted and irritated, thou art terrible as the raging sea and dreadful as a tornado. But where thou art listened to and obeyed, thou art gentle as the purling stream that meanders through the mead; as soft and as cheerful as the zephyrs that dance upon the summers breeze, and as bounteous as autumn’s harvest. To thee, the sons of Africa, in this once dark, gloomy, hopeless, but now fairest, brightest, and most cheerful of thy domain, do owe a double obligation of gratitude. Thou hast entwined and bound fast the cruel hands of oppression – thou hast by the powerful charm of reason deprived the monster of his strength – he dies, he sinks to rise no more. Thou hast loosened the hard bound fetters by which we were held. And by a voice sweet as the music of heaven, yet strong and powerful, reaching to the extreme boundaries of the state of New-York, hath declared that we the people of color, the sons of Africa, are free.”
9. James McCune Smith: Dr. James McCune Smith was an African American physician who studied medicine in Glasgow, Scotland. Here he describes a manumission day parade in New York that he attended as a youth.
A splendid looking black man, mounted on a milk-white steed, then his aids on horseback, dashing up and down the line; then the orator of the day, also mounted, with a handsome scroll, appearing like a baton in his right hand, then in due order, splendidly dressed in scarfs of silk with gold-edgings, and with colored bands of music and their banners appropriately lettered and painted, followed, the New York African Society for Mutual Relief, the Wilberforce Benevolent Society, and the Clarkson Benevolent Society; then the people five or six abreast from grown men to small boys. The sidewalks were crowded with wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of the celebrants, representing every state in the Union, and not a few with gay bandanna handkerchiefs, betraying their West Indian birth. Nor was Africa underrepresented. Hundreds who survived the middle passage and a youth in slavery joined in the joyful procession.
10. David Ruggles: David Ruggles was born free in Norwich, Connecticut in 1810. He moved to New York City in 1827 where he was a founder and secretary of the New York Committee of Vigilance which aided hundreds of fugitive slaves. He also founded the city’s first Black bookstore, was a noted abolitionist lecturer, published a newspaper, and ran a boarding house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. In 1838, he provided safe-haven in his home for a freedom-seeker named Frederick Bailey who later changed his name to Frederick Douglass.
The whites have robbed us for centuries – they made Africa bleed rivers of blood! – they have torn husbands from their wives – wives from their husbands – parents from their children – children from their parents – brothers from their sisters – sisters from their brothers, and bound them in chains – forced them into holds of vessels – subjected them to the most unmerciful tortures: starved and murdered, and doomed them to endure the horrors of slavery. . . . But why is it that it seems to you so “repugnant” to marry your sons and daughters to colored persons? Simply because public opinion is against it. Nature teaches no such “repugnance,” but experience has taught me that education only does. Do children feel and exercise that prejudice towards colored persons? Do not colored and white children play together promiscuously until the white is taught to despise the colored?
11. Samuel Ringgold Ward: Samuel Ringgold Ward’s family escaped enslavement in Maryland when he was a child. He became an abolitionist, newspaper editor, and Congregationalist minister. He was forced to flee the United States in 1851 because of his involvement in anti-slavery activity in Syracuse.
I was born on the 17th October, 1817, in that part of the State of Maryland, commonly called the Eastern Shore. My parents were slaves. I was born a slave. They escaped, and took their then only child with them . . . I grew up, in the State of New Jersey, where my parents lived till I was nine years old, and in the State of New York, where we lived for many years. My parents were always in danger of being arrested and re-enslaved. To avoid this, among their measures of caution, was the keeping of their children quite ignorant of their birthplace, and of their condition, whether free or slave, when born.
12. Solomon Northup: Solomon Northup was a free Black man in upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. After twelve years of enslavement he was able to contact his family and secured his freedom. His memoir remains a powerful indictment of the slave system.
My ancestors on the paternal side were slaves in Rhode Island. They belonged to a family by the name of Northup, one of whom, removing to the State of New York, settled at Hoosic, in Rensselaer county. He brought with him Mintus Northup, my father. On the death of this gentleman, which must have occurred some fifty years ago, my father became free, having been emancipated by a direction in his will.. . . Though born a slave, and laboring under the disadvantages to which my unfortunate race is subjected, my father was a man respected for his industry and integrity, as many now living, who well remember him, are ready to testify. His whole life was passed in the peaceful pursuits of agriculture, never seeking employment in those more menial positions, which seem to be especially allotted to the children of Africa. Besides giving us an education surpassing that ordinarily bestowed upon children in our condition, he acquired, by his diligence and economy, a sufficient property qualification to entitle him to the right of suffrage . . . Up to this period I had been principally engaged with my father in the labors of the farm. The leisure hours allowed me were generally either employed over my books, or playing on the violin – an amusement which was the ruling passion of my youth.
13. Henry Highland Garnet: Henry Highland Garnet escaped to freedom with his family when he was a child and became a Presbyterian minister in Troy and New York City. At the 1843 National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York, Garnet called on enslaved Africans to revolt against their masters.
Let your motto be resistance! It is in your power so to torment the God-cursed slave-holders, that they will be glad to let you go free. If the scale was turned, and black men were the masters and white men the slaves, every destructive agent and element would be employed to lay the oppressor low. Danger and death would hang over their heads day and night. Yes, the tyrants would meet with plagues more terrible than those of Pharaoh. But you are a patient people. You act as though you were made for the special use of these devils. You act as though your daughters were born to pamper the lusts of your masters and overseers. And worse than all, you tamely submit while your lords tear your wives from your embraces and defile them before your eyes. In the name of God, we ask, are you men? Where is the blood of your fathers? Has it all run out of your veins? Awake, awake; millions of voices are calling you! Your dead fathers speak to you from their graves. Heaven, as with a voice of thunder, calls on you to arise from the dust. Let your motto be resistance! resistance! resistance! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance. Trust in the living God. Labor for the peace of the human race, and remember that you are four millions.
14. Frederick Douglass: Frederick Washington Bailey was born in Maryland in 1817. He was the son of a White man and an enslaved African woman so he was legally a slave. As a boy he was taught to read in violation of state law. In 1838, he escaped to New York City where he married and changed his name to Frederick Douglass. In 1847, Frederick Douglass started an anti-slavery newspaper in Rochester, New York.
“We solemnly dedicate the ‘North Star’ to the cause of our long oppressed and plundered fellow countrymen. May God bless the undertaking to your good. It shall fearlessly assert your rights, faithfully proclaim your wrongs, and earnestly demand for you instant and even-handed justice. Giving no quarter to slavery at the South, it will hold no truce with oppressors at the North. While it shall boldly advocate emancipation for our enslaved brethren, it will omit no opportunity to gain for the nominally free complete enfranchisement. Every effort to injure or degrade you or your cause . . . shall find in it a constant, unswerving and inflexible foe . . .”
15. Frederick Douglass: In 1852 Frederick Douglass delivered a Fourth of July speech in Rochester where he demanded to know, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
“What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? . . . Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence given by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn . . . What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality . . . There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.”
16. Frederick Douglass: In a January 1864 speech at Cooper Union in New York City, Frederick Douglass laid out his vision for the future of the country.
What we now want is a country—a free country—a country not saddened by the footprints of a single slave—and nowhere cursed by the presence of a slaveholder. We want a country which shall not brand the Declaration of Independence as a lie. We want a country whose fundamental institutions we can proudly defend before the highest intelligence and civilization of the age . . . We now want a country in which the obligations of patriotism shall not conflict with fidelity to justice and liberty . . . WE want a country . . . where no man may be imprisoned or flogged or sold for learning to read, or teaching a fellow mortal how to read . . . Liberty for all, chains for none; the black man a soldier in war, a laborer in peace; a voter at the South as well as at the North; America his permanent home, and all Americans his fellow countrymen. Such, fellow citizens, is my idea of the mission of the war. If accomplished, our glory as a nation will be complete, our peace will flow like a river, and our foundation will be the everlasting rocks.
17. Jermain Loguen: Jermain Loguen escaped from slavery in Tennessee when he was 21. Once free, Loguen became an abolitionist, teacher and minister. In 1841, he moved to Syracuse, where as the “station master” of the local underground railroad “depot,” he helped over one thousand “fugitives” escape to Canada. In 1850, Reverend Loguen denounced the Fugitive Slave Law.
I was a slave; I knew the dangers I was exposed to. I had made up my mind as to the course I was to take. On that score I needed no counsel, nor did the colored citizens generally. They had taken their stand-they would not be taken back to slavery. If to shoot down their assailants should forfeit their lives, such result was the least of the evil. They will have their liberties or die in their defense. I don’t respect this law – I don’t fear it – I won’t obey it! It outlaws me, and I outlaw it, and the men who attempt to enforce it on me. I place the governmental officials on the ground that they place me. I will not live a slave, and if force is employed to re-enslave me, I shall make preparations to meet the crisis as becomes a man. If you will stand by me and I believe you will do it, for your freedom and honor are involved as well as mine, . . . you will be the saviors of your country. Your decision tonight in favor of resistance will give vent to the spirit of liberty, and will break the bands of party, and shout for joy all over the North. Your example only is needed to be the type of public action in Auburn, and Rochester, and Utica, and Buffalo, and all the West, and eventually in the Atlantic cities. Heaven knows that this act of noble daring will break out somewhere – and may God grant that Syracuse be the honored spot, whence it shall send an earthquake voice through the land!
18. Sojourner Truth: Sojourner Truth, whose original name was Isabella Bomfree, was born and enslaved near Kingston, New York. After gaining her freedom she became an itinerant preacher who campaigned for abolition and woman’s rights. During the Civil War, Truth urged young men to enlist and organized supplies for black troops. After the war, she worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping people find jobs and build new lives. Her most famous speech was delivered in 1851 at a women’s rights convention in Ohio.
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about? That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? . . . That little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
19. Harriet Jacobs: Harriet Jacobs was born enslaved in North Carolina in 1813. After hiding in an attic for seven years, she escaped to the north in
She published her memoir in 1861 using the pseudonym Linda Brent. In 1853, Jacobs wrote a Letter from a Fugitive Slave that was published in the New York Daily Tribune.
I was born a slave, reared in the Southern hot-bed until I was the mother of two children, sold at the early age of two and four years old. I have been hunted through all of the Northern States . . . My mother was dragged to jail, there remained twenty-five days, with Negro traders to come in as they liked to examine her, as she was offered for sale. My sister was told that she must yield, or never expect to see her mother again . . . That child gave herself up to her master’s bidding, to save one that was dearer to her than life itself . . . At fifteen, my sister held to her bosom an innocent offspring of her guilt and misery. In this way she dragged a miserable existence of two years, between the fires of her mistress’s jealousy and her master’s brutal passion. At seventeen, she gave birth to another helpless infant, heir to all the evils of slavery. Thus life and its sufferings was meted out to her until her twenty-first year. Sorrow and suffering has made its ravages upon her – she was less the object to be desired by the fiend who had crushed her to the earth; and as her children grew, they bore too strong a resemblance to him who desired to give them no other inheritance save Chains and Handcuffs . . . those two helpless children were the sons of one of your sainted Members in Congress; that agonized mother, his victim and slave.
20. James Pennington: James Pennington was born into slavery on the coast of Maryland and escaped in 1828. He challenged segregation and championed education for African Americans. He authored the first account of African Americans used in schools, A Text Book of the Origin and History of Colored People.
There is one sin that slavery committed against me, which I never can forgive. It robbed me of my education; the injury is irreparable; I feel the embarrassment more seriously now than I ever did before. It cost me two years’ hard labour, after I fled, to unshackle my mind; it was three years before I had purged my language of slavery’s idioms; it was four years before I had thrown off the crouching aspect of slavery; and now the evil that besets me is a great lack of that general information, the foundation of which is most effectually laid in that part of life which I served as a slave. When I consider how much now, more than ever, depends upon sound and thorough education among coloured men, I am grievously overwhelmed with a sense of my deficiency, and more especially as I can never hope now to make it up.
21. Elizabeth Jennings: In 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, a free woman of color, was thrown off a street car in New York City. The New York Tribune printed “Outrage Upon Colored Persons” where she told her story.
I held up my hand to the driver and he stopped the cars. We got on the platform, when the conductor told us to wait for the next car. I told him I could not wait, as I was in a hurry to go to church. He then told me that the other car had my people in it, that it was appropriated for that purpose . . . He insisted upon my getting off the car, but I did not get off . . . I told him not to lay his hands on me. I took hold of the window sash and held on. He pulled me until he broke my grasp and I took hold of his coat and held onto that. He ordered the driver to fasten his horses, which he did, and come and help him put me out of the car. They then both seized hold of me by the arms and pulled and dragged me flat down on the bottom of the platform, so that my feet hung one way and my head the other, nearly on the ground. I screamed murder with all my voice, and my companion screamed out “you’ll kill her. Don’t kill her.” . . . They got an officer on the corner of Walker and Bowery, whom the conductor told that his orders from the agent were to admit colored persons if the passengers did not object, but if they did, not to let them ride . . . Then the officer, without listening to anything I had to say, thrust me out, and then pushed me, and tauntingly told me to get redress [damages] if I could.
22. William Wells Brown: William Wells Brown was born on a plantation near Lexington, Kentucky in 1814 and escaped to Ohio in 1834. He moved to New York State in the 1840, and he began lecturing for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society and worked as a steam boatman, which enabled him to assist freedom-seekers on the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War he demanded that Blacks be allowed to serve in the Union Army.
Mr. President, I think that the present contest has shown clearly that the fidelity of the black people of this country to the cause of freedom is enough to put to shame every white man in the land who would think of driving us out of the country, provided freedom shall be proclaimed. I remember well, when Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation went forth, calling for the first 75,000 men, that among the first to respond to that call were the colored men . . . Although the colored men in many of the free States were disfranchised, abused, taxed without representation, their children turned out of the schools, nevertheless, they, went on, determined to try to discharge their duty to the country, and to save it from the tyrannical power of the slaveholders of the South . . . The black man welcomes your armies and your fleets, takes care of your sick, is ready to do anything, from cooking up to shouldering a musket; and yet these would-be patriots and professed lovers of the land talk about driving the Negro out!
23. Harriet Tubman: Harriet Tubman, who escaped from slavery in Maryland as a young woman, was the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. She served in the Civil War as a scout, nurse, and guerilla fighter. On October 22, 1865, Harriet Tubman spoke before a massive audience at the Bridge Street AME Church in Brooklyn.
Last evening an immense congregation, fully half consisting of whites, was presented at the African M.E. Church in Bridge street, to listen to the story of the experiences of Mrs. Harriet Tubman, known as the South Carolina Scout and nurse, as related by herself . . . Mrs. Tubman is a colored lady, of 35 or 40 years of age; she appeared before those present with a wounded hand in a bandage, which would she stated was caused by maltreatment received at the hands of a conductor on the Camden and Amboy railroad, on her trip from Philadelphia to New York, a few days since. Her words were in the peculiar plantation dialect and at times were not intelligible to the white portion of her audience . . . She was born, she said, in the eastern portion of the State of Maryland, and wanted it to be distinctly understood that she was not educated, nor did she receive any “broughten up”. . . She knew that God had directed her to perform other works in this world, and so she escaped from bondage. This was nearly 14 years ago, since then she has assisted hundreds to do the same.
24. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: In May 1866, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a leading African American poet, lecturer and civil right activist, addressed the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York.
Born of a race whose inheritance has been outrage and wrong, most of my life had been spent in battling against those wrongs . . . We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members . . . This grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail to reach its climax of success, until throughout the length and breadth of the American Republic, the nation shall be so color-blind, as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. It will then have no privileged class, trampling upon outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain.
“Disability” as a whole is not a topic commonly found in the average social studies curriculum. I had history classes that would mention President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of a wheelchair after contracting polio, or a brief aside to discuss President Woodrow Wilson’s handicaps of paralysis and loss of partial vision after a stroke in his second term. During my time student teaching, not one of the historical figures we learned about had a disability that we discussed as a class. I struggled between choosing to read either Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, or Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, but I decided to write my review of Nielsen’s book as I am not getting my special education certification as many of my other friends in the cohort are. Though my knowledge of the indigenous peoples of the Americas is not incredibly broad, I do have more experience with that topic as I took several Native American history classes during my time as an undergraduate at Rutgers University. But, aside from an online “Intro to Special Education” class, I felt I needed to learn more about the history of people with disabilities in the United States as an educator who will not only most likely be working at some point with students who have disabilities of their own, but also to educate all of my students about a history that has largely been ignored, in my own experience as a student.
Nielsen wrote a book which not only kept
my attention with how clear it is, but also with how truly fascinating she kept
her writing by including personal anecdotes from people with disabilities, as
well from those who have discriminated against them throughout various time
periods or witnessed this discrimination.
The main argument of A Disability
History of the United States remains clear throughout the entire book:
people with disabilities have a history all their own that has fallen by the
wayside in terms of historical coverage and mass education to students. Nielsen
argues that this is a history that changes based on time period and culture,
opening her book with a Native American view of disabilities before
colonization, followed immediately after by a contrasting chapter of how early
colonial settlers viewed disabilities.
But more subtle arguments appear throughout the book as themes, such as
the reoccurring theme of discrimination against people with disabilities by
those without disabilities.
Discrimination against people with disabilities is still a civil rights issue today, which is how Nielsen concludes her book, bringing the reader to the twenty-first century with anecdotes of modern-day activists. Another theme of the book is juxtaposing not only how able-bodied view people with disabilities, but how people with disabilities view themselves. In no way does Nielsen write this book in condescending pity for people with disabilities. She rather raises people with disabilities up to be identified by more than simply what they cannot do, but by highlighting what they can do in spite of their disability and how in various cultures and time periods, disability was not frowned upon, but instead those individuals were cared for by the community rather than shunned away.
argument of Nielsen’s
book is effective mainly in its use of evidence to support her claims. Her information has clearly been well
researched with footnotes leading the reader to page after page of resources
ranging from peer reviewed journals such as the Journal of the History of
Behavioral Sciences (Nielsen,
2012, p. 206) to the text from exhibit posters found at the Library of Congress
(p. 201). When Nielsen makes a claim about the treatment
of people with disabilities, it is followed almost always by evidence to back
up that claim. For example, in Chapter
Three, “The Late Colonial Era: 1700-1776,” Nielsen writes, “[Those considered
valueless and often killed]… likely included those with physical disabilities
that made them ineligible for slavery (pp. 43-44).” The next page provides an excerpt of a
primary source by a young boy named J.D. Romaigne serving on the slave ship Le
Rodeur where many of the slaves on board for transport to the New World
contracted blindness from ophthalmia, a contagious eye disease. Nielsen
cites Romaigne as saying, “The mate picked out thirty-nine negroes who were
completely blind, and… tied a piece of ballast to the legs of each. The miserable wretches were then thrown into
the sea” (p. 45). This gruesome
retelling of such an appalling event perfectly supports Nielsen’s claim from just a page earlier;
slaves with disabilities were typically “considered valueless and often killed”
interpretations of disability are the core content of the beginning of the
book, especially, and
this content continues throughout, though more sparsely, as the book goes
on. The remainder of the book focuses
more often on disability as widely recognized, but not protected, and it then
becomes a civil rights battle for equal rights.
I really enjoyed how the book is written in chapters that follow one
another chronologically, to show the history of people with disabilities as one
that does simply have an upward growth towards equal rights, but how that
battle for equal rights was nonexistent, and then partially won, and then
partially lost again, and how this battle continues into today’s society. It is captivating how Nielsen starts with the treatment of
people with disabilities amongst Native American cultures before European
arrival, as this is an aspect of the topic I had never learned before.
But the book is limited, though it acknowledges this in the title, since it is only A Disability History of the United States. The examination of Native American culture is the only look the reader gets at disability viewed by another culture other than mostly European immigrants to the United States. She writes how Native Americans were generally unfazed by disability as, especially physical disability, was so common in the difficult work required to survive. And anyone who could provide some service to the community was valued despite their disability. The author does write two contrasting views immediately following one another, as disability was defined differently by separate tribes and individuals without any laws to define the rights of the disabled and who those laws should include. Nielsen writes, “Some groups viewed the behaviors and perceptions of what today we call psychological disability as a great gift to be treasured and a source of community wisdom (p. 5). She then contrasts this statement by following up with, “Others considered them a form of a supernatural possession, or evidence of the imbalance of an individual’s body, mind, and spirit” (p. 5). Alternative interpretations of disability are presented throughout the book within the setting of the chapter’s time period; for example, the varying accounts of disability and its differing treatments and levels of acceptance in the next chapter about European settlers, but it is up to the reader to connect those alternative interpretations within one chapter to past chapters.
content of this book could inform classroom instruction in U.S. History not
only in New Jersey schools, but schools across the nation. Personal accounts of disability stretch from
California protests for equal rights in the 1970s to “founding the nation’s first
disability-specific institution in the United States, the American Asylum for
the Deaf, in Hartford, Connecticut” (Nielsen, p.67). And on the topic of asylums and other
institutions for people with disabilities, the content of this book can connect
to classroom instruction through the form of visual media. Educators can connect Nielsen’s discussion of the conditions and
purposes of asylums and institutions at their founding to their actual
perpetuity in an example such as showing clips from journalist Geraldo Rivera’s
publicly broadcast special about the horrors of Willowbrook State School in New
York. I recently watched the special in
my “Inclusive Teaching” class this semester, and though it is from the 1970s,
Rivera’s piece still sends shivers down my spine today. It is a powerful visual component to
incorporate into classroom instruction when discussing disabilities.
content of this book could also be used to engage students in current events by
learning about the past. For example, Nielsen writes, “Don Galloway of the
Governor’s Advisory Committee on the Handicapped testified that every day, his
office received phone calls from ‘people who are being discriminated against,’
and that as many as three hundred thousand Colorado citizens with disabilities
needed civil rights protection” (Nielsen,
p. 170). Students could be asked to
connect acts of the 1980s such as this, to modern acts of civilian
participation in seeking to influence government. Students could be given
examples such as this one provided by Nielsen and be asked to compare to the
current events in which many American citizens have been calling their local
senators to oppose the appointment of Betsy DeVos to the position of Secretary
of Education. Articles about the two
Republican senators who voted against DeVos, though not preventing her
appointment, can be found from reliable sources such as the New York Times,
quoted as saying “The two Republicans who voted against the nominee, Senators
Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said Ms. DeVos was
unqualified… Ms. Murkowski also said she had been influenced by thousands of
messages she had received urging her to reject the nomination” (Alcindor &
Huetteman, 2017). Students can be asked
to draw comparisons between the activism that influenced the acts of these
government officials, and in turn, learn about being active citizens in a
democracy and exercising their rights.
social studies curricula we have analyzed thus far in class, Jarolimek,
Hartoonian-Laughlin, and Kniep, all seem to have at least one common curriculum
goal: create active
citizens in a democracy. I believe that A Disability History of the United States
could absolutely fit into the curriculum design of U.S. History for middle or
secondary school students. I found Nielsen’s book to be so clear, concise,
and grabbing to read more, that I would recommend it as reading for secondary
students. The vocabulary used by Nielsen is easy to understand and the
story she tells is compelling, especially to students who mostly likely have
never learned anything about the history of disability. This book can be used to inform students of
both middle and secondary education of the contributions and struggles of
people with disabilities throughout history.
offers countless examples of tales of strife and triumph of those with
disabilities for educators to choose from based on grade level
appropriateness. On one hand, maybe
middle school students could not emotionally handle the previously mentioned “Le
Rodeur” example. People with
disabilities have always existed, and these time periods and cultures in which
they are living are mostly being covered in U.S. history classes, but the
individuals with disabilities themselves are not.
content of this book could inspire empathy, a goal our cohort discussed as a
class that we would like to see in our own curricula. The number of inclusion classes in the United
States seems to be growing every year, I taught two during my student teaching,
and I believe it is important for the peers in these classes of both students
with disabilities and students without disabilities to respect one
another. Knowing the history of the
disability movements in the United States can engender respect for a group of
people who have been historically oppressed such as when Paul S. Miller, a
top-of-his-class Harvard graduate had “over
forty firms seeking his application”, but “after interviewing Miller, who was
four and half feet tall, firms changed their minds” (Nielsen, p. 171). This example can be taught to students to
show the struggles of those with disabilities, but also their successes, as
“Miller later become a commissioner of the US Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission and an international disability-rights expert” (Nielsen, p. 171).
curriculum based around including the history of disabilities in the United
States, such as the story of Paul S. Miller, would not be difficult to
create. Social studies educators already
teach the time periods marked in Nielsen’s
book. For example, Nielsen writes, “The story of Robert Payne
and the Disabled Miners and Widows is a story of class, labor, race, and place;
it is also the story of the social reform movement that culminated in President
Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society… (p. 159).
Mainstream approaches to U.S. History, based on my own experience in
history classes in high school as a student, already include discussions of
“class, labor, race, and place.” To
include the discussion of disability in this mix is natural as Nielsen in the aforementioned quote
proves, the stories of people with disabilities overlap with other historical
contexts already being taught. To
include a history of people with disabilities in the mainstream curriculum
would challenge a curriculum that does not always include the stories of
minorities based on race, gender, or ability.
During my student teaching, I was expected to follow a curriculum that
mentioned a few historic women, barely any historic racial minorities other
than those conquered or enslaved by Europeans, and no discussion of those with
disabilities. Curriculum design that
includes the stories of people with disabilities paves the way for social
studies educators to discuss the stories of all minorities, as people with
disabilities can also be racial or gender minorities. Nielsen’s
book makes it easy for the social studies curriculum to include content from A Disability History of the United States,
especially with her chapters clearly marked by the eras already being taught in
the mainstream social studies curriculum of U.S. History.
Sheena Jacobs Coordinator for Social Studies, Glen Cove School District
“I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong. Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes. Nobody will dare say to me, “Eat in the kitchen,” then. Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed—I, too, am America” (Hughes, 2012).
James Mercer Langston Hughes was a
famous American writer who was known best for being a leader of the Harlem
Renaissance in New York City. Through his writings, he spoke about the
inequalities that Blacks faced in our nation. He wrote and talked about the
trials and tribulations that society has put on Blacks, and he questioned all
aspects that are a nation is derived from, which are political, social, and
economic. Reflecting on Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too,” and in the current
political and social climate that we are living in, we are reminded that now more
than ever, schools must embrace diversity and become culturally responsive. We
are currently living in a society where the haves are at an advantage point,
and the have-nots are at a disadvantage. For social mobility, we must provide
equal and quality education for all children.
Unfortunately in the 21st century,
we still face segregation and inequalities within schools from various regions,
such as rural, urban and suburban areas. According to Leonard Valverde article
titled, “Equal Educational Opportunity Since Brown: four major development”
(2004) research has indicated the following implications are all steps to
assist the segregation, promotion of equality and quality of education for all
Implication #1: Compensatory Education for Equal Treatment Programs stimulated and encouraged by federal funding
Implication #2: School Financing: Equity and Adequacy—Includes facilities, equipment, and personnel; inclusion and access using affirmative action
Implication #3: Multicultural Curriculum: An Accurate Account—A balance and true representation of contributions made by populations in America’s development
These strategies are targeted to
address four basic concepts necessary to eliminate school segregation: promote
equality in treatment, equity in resources, equal opportunity, and cultural
democracy (Valverde, 2004). When researching responses to diversify and provide
equal and quality education, author Ezella McPherson states the following
points in “Moving from Separate, to Equal, to Equitable Schooling: Revisiting
School Desegregation Policies,” (2011)
“…to diversify schools, housing
policies need to be implemented to end racial discriminatory housing practices
while integrating neighborhoods so that children and parents can interact with
people from different racial backgrounds. By doing so, parents may be able to
build racial tolerance and acceptance of their neighbors, which will place them
in a better position to feel more comfortable to send their children to
racially integrated schools. Besides neighborhoods, schools may need to be
reformed to provide equitable learning environments for students regardless of
their racial and/or socioeconomic class background. By equitable learning
environment, I am suggesting that schools provide students with the opportunity
to learn through providing an equitable education to students through quality
teaching, school resources (e.g., books, materials), in-school tutoring for
students with special needs or who have challenges in a particular subject.
More importantly, in building racial tolerance and acceptance for people from different
racial backgrounds, community members (e.g., school teachers, parents, local
community members) should consider working together to provide a quality
education for students” (2011, p.479).
Reflecting on my personal story, my
parents migrated to the United States of America in the 1970s, looking for a
better opportunity in three aspects of life, political, social and economic.
They left their family and possessions behind and started in this country with
a clear motivation, “to provide a better opportunity and lifestyle for their
children and extended family.” I grew up in a household with strong cultural
ties to the Indian culture and the Christian faith. My siblings and I were
consistently reminded of the struggles that my parents and their ancestors
endured and faced as they lived in India. They told us their hardships if it
dealt with socioeconomic status, race, equality, or gender relationship, that
they dealt with as they started and continued to live in America. The challenge
of living in a traditional household that focuses on culture and religion is
when you are living in a different culture besides the one that you are growing
up in. Living in a household and trying to find an even balance between the
American culture and Indian culture was challenging because there were ideology
differences in culture, achievement, motivation, and gender. As I entered the
elementary school, I thought that all children are equal and viewed the same;
however, I soon came to realize how different I was even though I was born in
the United States of America. I saw that I was not a part of the same culture,
in fact, I was a minority looking into a culture that I had no idea about.
At an early age, I found myself
making decisions and understanding perspectives that differed from mine; I look
at the content in multiple ways because I was exposed to understanding how the
world can be complicated, unjust, and unfair. My parents instilled in us that
one should not allow being conquered by the injustices or unfairness that we
might receive, one should look at these trials and tribulations and overcome
them by continuing to follow their aspirations, advancing to become educated
and eventually empowering oneself and making the change he or she wishes to
Looking at my parents starting
point as they entered this country in the 1970s and comparing to where we are
as a family now is remarkable, considering the strides that they made with the
limited resources and support at their disposal. My parents eventually moved
out to the suburbs on Long Island. They were adamant about providing us a
quality education, and as a result, they uprooted their family to a new
location where they were the only minority family. I can remember racial
tension stories, an unfair treatment that my parents endured as they lived in the
United States. I remember entering school and seeing racial injustices amongst
my siblings and I. However, the one thing I remembered is that my parents
consistently demonstrated that the culture that they have raised us was a
culture that entailed language, knowledge, history, morals, and values that we
should be proud of. We were taught not to back down and continue to strive. My
parents equipped us with ideas that when we face injustices, we must be
prepared with words, education, knowledge, and understanding and only then can
we achieve equality.
In a traditional Indian household
males and females are distinctly different. Being the youngest and a female, my
gender defined my family responsibilities, social behavior, and thought
process. For instance, I was expected to learn how to cook and clean, prepare
meals and serve, be submissive and inferior to the males. However, living in a
western culture and growing up in a traditional Indian household, my
environment did not allow me to accept and practice any of these expectations.
In fact, with the combination of the American and Indian culture intertwined,
the two cultures combined empowered me to become a stronger individual that was
aspiring to be a change agent for future minority youths, adults and especially
As an educator, administrator, and
a doctoral student, I can emphatically say and agree with Ezella McPherson; it
is time for schools to support children that come from diverse background, it
is imperative that we as leaders provide professional development to our
teachers who are in the frontline to help children who may differ from the
majority, it is time for local and state officials to make culturally
responsiveness a priority and not a checklist of things to get done within the
educational system. The racial segregation and intolerance I felt in my life
was strikingly turning points in my life, however the people that I came
across, my family who was my foundation, and my loved ones who continue to
support me were all factors why I keep staying on a path where I can be a
change agent for schools to become culturally responsive.
Hughes, L., Collier, B., Linn, L., & Simon and Schuster
Books for Young Readers (Firm),. (2012). I,
Too. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Kozol, Jonathan (1991). Savage Inequalities: children in America’s schools. New York:
McPherson, Ezella (2011). Moving from Separate, to Equal, to
Equitable Schooling: Revisiting School Desegregation Policies. Education and Urban Society, 46(3),
Valverde, Leonard (2004). Equal Educational Opportunity Since Brown: four major developments. Education and Urban Society, 36(3), 368-378.