“I’m not alone in pledging to #TeachTruth”: Jesse Hagopian’s speech from June 12 National Day of Action opposing the banning of teaching about structural racism & oppression.

Jesse Hagopian delivers a speech at the Seattle #TeachTruth rally on June 12, 2021. Photo by Maile Anderson, posted with permission.

A great movement is gaining strength to refuse to lie to kids.

On January 12th, 2021, hundreds of teachers in over 40 different cities and towns joined a national day of action to #TeachTruth in opposition to the proliferation of laws being proposed by state legislators that would ban the teaching of structural racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression.  Educators organized their rallies at historic sites to provide examples of the history that teachers would be required to lie about or omit if the GOP anti-history bills become law. The action was co-organized by the Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter at School and they have launched an online petition that has garnered over 4,000 signatures from educators from around the county who have pledged to teach the truth about racism and oppression regardless of the law. Already at least 6 states have passed legislation or other measures to prohibit the teaching about structural racism and 15 states have proposed this legislation.

One of the June 12 rallies occurred in Seattle and was organized by the Social Equity Educators, Washington Ethnic Studies Now and supported by other youth and parent organizations. Educator Bruce Jackson served as the MC for the day and led the march on a walking tour of places of historical significance to the struggle for racial justice in the Central District–the historically Black neighborhood in Seattle that had been red-lined, and is now being quickly gentrified. Below are the remarks that Seattle educator, BLM at School organizer, and Zinn Education Project member Jesse Hagopian prepared for the assembled crowd that day.

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Racists are scared these days y’all. 

You can tell a scared racist because when they can’t win a debate, they just try to make it illegal for you to say — or teach — anything that challenges them.  I’m proud to stand with all of you today in the #TeachTruth movement.

My name is Jesse Hagopian.  I’ve taught at Garfield High School for the last 10 years and I’ve been teaching for over 20 years. I am a founding member of the BLM at School movement that started here in Seattle — and then went to Philly to become a week of action — and has since become a national uprising for racial justice in the schools.

Seattle’s June 12th, 2021 rally to #TeachTruth. Photo by Jesse Hagopian

I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on homeland of the Duwamish people — land that was colonized by the U.S.  We live in a city named after a Duwamish Chief and yet the Duwamish people still don’t have federal recognition . . . And, now, wait a minute . . . . If I was in Tennessee, would it even be legal for me to acknowledge that I was on Native American land that was colonized?  That’s really how far things have gone these days.

These laws banning the teaching of structural racism, sexism, and oppression are impacting every classroom — because even in states where there isn’t yet a bill, this legislation is emboldening people to attack teachers who want to teach the truth. And everyone should know that our neighbors to the east, the state of Idaho, recently passed a bill that declares, “Social justice ideology poses a grave threat to America and to the American way of life.” What? They are literally arguing that it’s social justice that poses a threat, not racism and sexism.

But you can’t understand our country without understanding racism and its intersections with sexism and heterosexism.  Consider these facts:

  • The average white family has ten times the amount of wealth than the average Black family.
  • A Black woman is 3 times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than a white woman.
  • Black students are over 3 times more likely to be suspended from school than white students.
  • Anti-Asian hate crimes have surged over 169% so far this year.
  • At least 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people were violently killed in 2020, with Black transgender women accounting for two-thirds of total recorded deaths since 2013.

Despite these glaring examples, in Iowa, they recently passed a bill which bans teaching that “the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.”

According to Merriam-Webster, “Fundamental” means: serving as an original or generating source. The original source of our country was the genocide against Native Americans and the enslavement of Black people. So you literally can’t teach about the founding of this country or its long history without talking about systemic racism. 

Seattle’s June 12th, 2021 rally to #TeachTruth. Photo by Maile Anderson, posted with permission.

In Missouri they proposed a bill that would ban teaching the 1619 project—which frames U.S. history in terms of the enslavement of African people who were brought to North American colonies in 1619.  And it bans the Zinn Education Project. And it bans the Black Lives Matter at School curriculum.

But I want to tell you all here today that the fact is they wouldn’t be passing these laws to ban the teaching of structural racism and oppression if they weren’t scared of something.

So, what are they scared of?

They are scared of the fact that activists built the broadest protest in U.S. history over the spring and summer in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which shook this country and exposed the structural nature of anti-Blackness to many.

They are scared of the fact that BLM at School movement tripled in size this school year.

They are sacred of solidarity.  The bill in Arkansas actually suggests banning the teaching of solidarity!

And they are certainly scared of students who can think critically.

Seattle’s June 12th, 2021 rally to #TeachTruth. Photo by Jesse Hagopian.

The summer uprising was led by youth.  The media likes to talk about learning loss from summer break or from remote schooling, but the truth is the students have learned — and taught — the nation so much about the nature of structural racism.  These youth who can think for themselves and challenge injustice really scare racists.

But informed Black people have always scared racists.

This isn’t the first time that frightened racists have tried to ban education.  The first law of this kind was a slave code enacted in 1740 in reaction to the Stono Slave Rebellion 1739 in South Carolina and it made writing illegal for enslaved African people.

But from the time it was illegal to be literate until today, Black people have always led a struggle for racial justice and education.

Enslaved Black people snuck off plantations to teach each other how to read and write, even though it was illegal — they called it “stealing a meeting.”  The punishment could be maiming or even death if you were caught reading or writing, but Black people did it anyway. 

During the Reconstruction era, Black educators built the public school system across the south because they knew there was no full emancipation without education.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Freedom Schools were organized, especially during the “Freedom Summer” campaign of 1964.  During Freedom Summer, more than 3,000 Black students attended a Freedom School — and the final exam was going and registering to vote or organizing others into the movement — not bubbling in answers on standardized tests.

Then there was the proliferation of the Afrocentric schools around the country in the 1970s and the Black Panther Party’s Liberation Schools — like the Oakland Community School that was run by Ericka Huggins.

Today we have the Black Lives Matter at School and other movements for racial justice in education.

It’s important to look at this history to help us understand the way forward.  But I want to be clear about something. While today’s racists may not be so bold as to ban the reading of the word — as they did for my ancestors — they do want to ban the reading of the world.

But I am telling you all that am I going to teach my students about how to read the world — because it desperately needs changing.  And I refuse to be intimidated from teaching about the people throughout history who have helped make these needed changes.  I am going to teach my students about the ideas and practice of people like Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, and Claudia Jones, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ella Baker, and Barbara Smith, and Angela Davis.  Because a world where kids learn about these freedom fighters and put their ideas in action will be a world with less oppression and more empathy, more dignity, more equity, more democracy.

I’m pledging to you all today that I will refuse to lie to kids — no matter what the laws tells me to do.  And I’m so glad I’m not alone.

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