January 12, 2022
How Can We Heal?
The Case for a More Honest High School History Curriculum
By TaMyra Johnson
Our history curriculum needs to include everyone’s stories—not just the ones we are comfortable with. Some may argue that if we teach students about America’s disgraceful past that we will remain in it; but I argue instead that it will liberate us. Right now, history is not being taught honestly and leaves students like me, having to fill in the gaps ourselves.
One of those gaps is the story of Claudette Colvin. Claudette Colvin was a fifteen-year-old girl who protested against Montgomery’s racist bus laws and was actually the first person arrested for her protest. But we don’t hear about her because she doesn’t fit into our idealized narrative of the Civil Rights Movement. She had a darker skin tone and was pregnant as a teenager. So we talk about Rosa Parks instead.
And there were also people like Kentucky's own Georgia Davis Powers.
Powers became the first Black person and the first woman to be elected to the Kentucky State Senate in 1967. During her five four-year terms, she chaired major legislative committees and fought fiercely for laws on public accommodations, open housing, and other issues of concern to people of color, women, children, and the poor. But when this distinguished person first arrived at our state capital in 1967 as a newly elected senator, it was only because Powers was a Black woman that she could not even get a room at a hotel.
There are hundreds of stories like Colvin’s and Powell’s that should be a part of our curriculum.
When we learn about only the largest figures and the ones we are most comfortable with, their achievements seem singular and unobtainable.
Students shouldn’t have to close the gaps of history themselves. And students of color shouldn’t be the only ones to carry the burden of learning when American ideals about justice and democracy fell short.
If we don’t see people that look like us, hear the full story of how they lived, learned, and navigated injustice, how can we heal? How can we carry on their legacy of making our country better?
History is often taught in a way that gives students the impression that we jumped from one major event to the next, and that everything worked out in the end.
But that is not how history works. We can’t cherry-pick the parts of American history we learn, and the perspectives we hear.
We must have exposure to multiple accounts to have a full grasp of history. Talking to some history teachers in my own school about these issues helped me understand that change will have to start with us not being scared to make students uncomfortable. Our history is uncomfortable, so we need to talk about it, not ignore it.
The Kentucky legislature is considering House Bills 14 and 18 which, among other things, limit conversations about race and gender and issues that might somehow prompt students to feel ashamed. But there is, in fact, nothing more shameful than ignoring what makes you uncomfortable and censoring the diverse narratives that fuel a healthy democracy.
As a high school student of color myself, if there’s one thing I have learned in questioning the way history is taught in our schools, it’s that our ability to have difficult conversations about America’s past is essential to learning more about ourselves and each other. Maybe then, instead of passing laws that limit what teachers can discuss in classrooms, we can support all students to thrive in an increasingly diverse world.
The first step is embracing the discomfort that comes from learning a complete history.
The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.
These remarks were deliverd at the Stop the Teacher Gag Bill Rally organized by the Defenders of Accurate History & the Kentucky Student Voice Team at the capitol in Frankfort on January 12, 2022.
TaMyra Johnson is a senior at Fern Creek High School in Louisville.