“When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
— Amanda Gorman, Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate
There have always been two starkly different existing narratives in America. The first is that our country was built upon the premise of freedom, opportunity and equality. The second is the insidious roots of slavery, oppression and discrimination.
How can two such opposing narratives exist simultaneously? Which one of them is our country built upon, noble aspiration or discrimination? The answer is both. These two narratives, however, have been separated with one taking precedence over the other, evident in our history books and major institutions. The question we should be asking ourselves is what causes us to acknowledge one narrative and not the other? Perhaps the contradiction is too much for us to handle, making the first one much easier to appropriate.
Contradiction is part of life and exists all around us. As human beings, we are made up of multiple voices. Our parents, siblings, educators, spiritual role models, peers and demographics all influence our thoughts, emotions and actions. As we know, some of these voices are constructive and some are counter-productive. We must eventually come to terms with and reconcile those voices that are contradictory in order to feel like a whole person.
The same is true for a country, which is also made up of multiple and conflicting narratives. There is no doubt that America was conceived from great premises and ideals. Yet, at the same time, the second narrative is still profoundly real for many individuals and insufficiently addressed even in our private and public schools.
By the time a student completes grades K through 12, particularly in an affluent suburb, he or she has generally read two literary works by an African American author, one by a Latino(a) author, rarely one by other Ethnic American authors, and most likely, zero comprehensive Ethnic American history books. The number slightly goes up among inner city schools.
Celebrating diversity and teaching tolerance is a move in the right direction, but paper-thin at best. American History, Literature, Cultural Studies and any other humanity lessons should be proportionally accompanied by the endless available resources compiled by scholars and authors of color who live(d) the second narrative on a daily basis. Teaching the whole picture will allow students to form conclusions based on their own observations, which is far more impactful than indoctrination and will ultimately lead to more invested dialogue, interaction and change.
Yes, changing the curriculum will involve a great deal of work, however, we are not talking about an educational fad. We are talking about including groups of U.S. citizens who have been an integral and important part of building this nation, institutions and ideals, who are crucial to American culture, whose stories are continually unacknowledged and untold. As educators, it is our responsibility to address the need for such curriculum changes to reflect who we really are as a nation.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Gale Papageorge has served on multiple higher education diversity curriculum committees and has designed American Diversity Requirement classes at Fairfield University, where she currently teaches. She holds a Master’s degree in American and African American Literature and a PhD in Comparative Ethnic American Literature. She is the author of multiple articles and several books including, New Rhetorical Strategies for Reading African American Texts, A Dialogic Approach to Reading and Teaching Ethnic American Texts, and a contributing author to Patriarchy in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street: Social Issues in Literature. She’s been recognized by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as a scholar of African-American and Comparative Ethnic American Literature and for her books, which are a permanent part of their collection.