It’s Black History Month in Virginia. It’s also the convening of the General Assembly in Virginia. You ask - what do those two seemingly unrelated occurrences have to do with each other? As a Black woman who lives and works in Virginia, I must say that sadly, this year they seem to be inextricably connected.
I’ve watched legislators introduce one bill after another to either end or curtail the rights for which my ancestors have fought so valiantly. Bills that repeal the voting rights gains of the 2021 General Assembly, including creating barriers to absentee voting, toughening voter ID requirements, and repealing same-day registration.
And if the attack on voting rights wasn’t enough, on his first day in office, newly elected Governor Glenn Youngkin introduced Executive Order 1 to ban the teaching of “divisive” concepts in primary and secondary schools. The General Assembly took up that banner by introducing HB787, which in part reads that schools should not teach that “(i) one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; …. or (v) an individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex...”
On their face, these two statements seem innocuous enough - but let’s unpack them a bit. So, schools should not teach that one race is superior to another. The only race that has claimed superiority since I’ve been a child has been the white race. And I didn’t learn that in school – I learned that in life. I learned that the first time a white man called my very dignified grandfather a boy. I learned that as I traveled south from Maryland to Florida to visit my grandmother having to be cautious of where we could stop to eat, get gas, or go to the bathroom. I learn it today when I see the disparity that exists between Blacks and whites in homeownership and income. And I learn it when I see how Black and Brown communities are over-policed without consequences and over-incarcerated.
But then the bill goes on to read that schools should not teach that a person should feel any responsibility for things done by their ancestors in the past. When the actions of a people have created a society where unfairness and inequality are baked into its very fabric, who is responsible? And more importantly, who has the power to correct that – to change systems for the better – to right old wrongs? If you’re never taught both the good and the bad about this country, how do you even know what has brought us to our current situation? How do we take personal responsibility for making things better? When I was a child and I did something wrong to a person, my parents made me apologize and make amends. They believed that taking responsibility built moral character. How do we build moral character for correcting a society?
So, back to Black History month. It’s a time when many Black people look back on the accomplishments of our ancestors. Black History Week was started in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, a Black historian, at a time when Black people had no footprint in American history. He believed that Black people needed to know our history, we needed to know “what had brought us this far," and that belief evolved into Black History Month. Over the years, as Black studies curriculums blossomed, there seemed to be a recognition that Black History is American History – a history that needs to be taught to everyone.
Ida B. Wells wrote, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” It was true in 1892 when she wrote it, and it is true today. My truth is that while many of these bills may not see the light of day, I live in a Commonwealth in which my very personhood is being besieged. So, as we come to the last days of Black History Month, I do look back and glory on the many accomplishments my ancestors have made – despite the many barriers they faced.
BUT it’s time to turn the focus from Black History to Black Futures. It’s time for all Americans to re-double our efforts to make sure that no one race has power over everyone else by trying to dictate what can and cannot be taught based on THEIR standards. The light of truth - racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia - are all real in our country and in the Commonwealth. The only way to create “a more perfect Commonwealth” is to face our truths and work to make amends.