The 1619 Project and Classroom Struggle Sessions

Guidance from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“It cannot be overstated,” says the educator’s guide for the new children’s book, Born on the Water, published alongside the hardcover edition of The 1619 Project. “The first step in mitigating harm to children as you teach the hard and triggering history of the enslavement is confronting yourself.” This sentence is bolded.

This guide for those teaching kindergarten through eighth grade is linked at the page of the publisher, the multinational conglomerate Penguin Random House, but is produced by Learning for Justice, the educational arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a criminal, conservative-smearing non-profit. It was the SPLC’s “survey” claiming that students were not being taught about slavery that was used as a pretext to justify The 1619 Project, published as an issue of the New York Times Magazine on August 18, 2019. A guide for high school teachers is also provided for the 600-page hardcover edition, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.

New York Times “race” reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the much-criticized 1619 Project, co-author of the children’s book, and co-editor and contributor to the hardcover edition, accuses those introducing or passing laws forbidding classroom use of The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory of “censorship.”

At the same time, she has been publicizing a collaborative effort by her publisher, bookstores, and the nonprofit diversebooks.org (which receives donations from Penguin Random House!) to encourage fans to buy and donate her books to “low income classrooms, libraries, and educational organizations.” The non-profit Pulitzer Center, which produced the original curricular materials for over 4,500 schools, has sponsored events for librarians and after-school initiatives, including the “1619 Freedom School.”

Hannah-Jones insisted that the first stop on her nationwide book tour be at West High School in Waterloo, Iowa, where the celebrity author appeared “in conversation” with Mr. Dial, the high school teacher who radicalized her thirty years ago by introducing her to the writings of Lerone Bennett, a 1960s Ebony Magazine polemicist and coiner of the term Black Power. She tweeted on November 22, “Iowa’s Republican governor and legislature might not respect me or my work as they sought first to ban the 1619 Project explicitly and then passed one of these anti-history laws, but my community always supports and I can’t wait to see you all.”

Hannah-Jones’s experience in her childhood years when she found herself unable to participate in a classroom exercise about her family’s origins (apparently never thinking to include her white mother’s heritage) provides the framework for the 38-page picture book, which begins and ends with a girl standing in for Hannah-Jones.

After school, the girl’s grandmother tells her and her brother the story about their African orgins, illustrated with drawings of giddy toothy African villagers, who, “before they were “stolen,” “were free” and had a home, a language, and knew farming, math, science, cooking, metal-working, drumming, and dancing.

The “white people,” kidnappers, then “baptized them in the name of their god.” So, “Ours is no immigration story.”

This “origin story” is a fairy tale, however. In West Africa, slaves for centuries had been working on plantations, in households, in mines, and suffering as victims of sacrifice, as I demonstrate in Debunking The 1619 Project. And it was the “savage chiefs,” as Frederick Douglass called them, who raided villages for slaves, rounded them up, and sold them to African and Muslim middlemen, who then marched them to the coast where Europeans waited.        

None of this is mentioned, but the horrors of the Middle Passage are dramatized. Those who did not die from maltreatment or suicide arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia, crying “a silent cry as white men spoke strange words / talking about their bodies / and with a handshake / traded another’s child, another’s momma and daddy, 20 to 30 beloved human beings in all, / for a few pounds of food and drink.” The “people” then worked in the tobacco fields from “sunup to sundown” “bringing wealth to Virginia” (the far more numerous white indentured toilers go unmentioned).

The misery continues: “White people told the people they were not human. / That the people were things / to be bought and sold and given as gifts / alongside horses and chairs.” Yet, those who were “born on the water” resisted, survived, and succeeded as “inventors and athletes, / nurses and cooks, / pilots and architects / farmers and housekeepers, / singers and artists. . . .”

This is illustrated with a drawing of black notables, chest-deep in water, including Frederick Douglass; Shirley Chisholm; an athlete bearing an Olympic gold medal, fist in the air; a young woman wearing a “BLM” t-shirt; and the girl. The last page shows her drawing an American flag as the grandmother tells her, “This is why we say / Black Lives Matter, / why we celebrate Black Girl Magic [also inscribed on Hannah-Jones’s favorite necklace]. . . .

Hannah-Jones and co-author Renée Watson write in the authors’ notes that they “hope Black American children . . . come away empowered” and feel “no shame” for having descended from slaves. A laudable goal, but it comes at the expense of accurate history, which would acknowledge the reality of black slave ownership, in Africa and in the United States.

Instead, quoting Marxist theorist Paulo Freire, the guide warns teachers to confront their own “personal biases, internalized racism, and ignorance of historical truths,” lest these show up in “interactions with children.” With books from Teaching for Justice and Facing History and Ourselves (another far-left education nonprofit), teachers are reassured that they will “build a classroom community that welcomes critical and courageous conversations, maintains safety during those conversations, and, in the event of students being harmed, restores relationships through honest dialogue.”

I see six-year-olds bursting into tears because “white” people take black children away from their “mommies and daddies.” I can just imagine the browbeating “honest dialogue.” Teachers are warned that such teaching may be “harrowing.” It is intended to be “harrowing.”

After being told that black children have been given “an origin story,” and “all children” “the gift of truth,” teachers are thanked—in the words of the Teaching for Change mantra, for “being the change,” a “lifelong” endeavor to prepare for teaching “about enslavement of Africans and racism in the United States of America,” requiring “personal study”—such as of the 1619 Project, three books by Ibram X. Kendi, and a collection of Black Lives Matter writing. Suggested materials for improving pedagogy include Learning for Justice books, radical education professor Bettina Love’s Breathing New Life into Book Clubs, the Pulitzer Center’s 1619 Project curriculum; “Teaching Hard History” podcasts by Hannah-Jones and by PushBlack; and The Black Power Mixtape, I Am Not Your Negro, and Soundtrack for a Revolution videos.     

The framework for SPLC’s “Teaching Hard History” warns teachers that it is hard, especially for white teachers, to talk about slavery without talking about race. But students K-second grade should “know” about freedom, equality, and equity. Questions posed to them should be general enough for “any text,” though these “texts” must be “liberatory,” e.g., promote healing from the past, “convey love” and “hope for the future through children's agency and self-directed action,” help “build community,” and provide a “’portal’ to students’ radical imaginations.”

Now teachers are ready to devote three weeks of classroom time to Born on the Water through Obama-era Common Core State Standards, the misapplied “close reading” rubric used to justify watered-down standards to bring along struggling readers through weeks of discussion.

Week one begins with an affirmation of “Black lives and ways of being” and then student responses during and after the readings, in student groups, and as student reflections in writing or drawing. According to the “text reflection protocol” students should ask themselves such things as, “What are you wondering?” “What are you feeling?” and what “actions” would you like to take.

Day one of week two should be dedicated to reading the book, but after teachers practice reading the “poetry” (pedestrian prose arbitrarily divided into lines) aloud to themselves. In class, teachers should read the text slowly to give students time to reflect and ask questions. A sample page-long introduction tells teachers to direct students’ attention to the drawings and people’s expressions; a long paragraph provides a mini-lecture on the relationship between racism and slavery. In preparation for days two through five, a model “book talk” offers, “We’ve read the phenomenal book Born on the Water. It is teaching us so much. For the next several days, we are going to read the text part by part, a few poems at a time, so we can take a closer look and learn even more from the phenomenal human beings in the book. We are going to study them very closely, using the same questions every day so we get lots of practice. . . .”

In addition to learning the vocabulary words, democracy, enslaver, enslaved person, equality, immigration, kindergarteners, first, second, and third-graders are directed to answer questions about what people in the “poems” say, do, think, feel; whether they have problems, solve problems, and change. Day five is dedicated to “connect[ing] the dots between the work you did celebrating Black lives during Week One and studying Born on the Water during Week Two,” in preparation for Week Three, devoted to discussing the book’s success as an “origin story,” with yet another reading, and then on days two through four students composing “where I’m from” poems, aided by listening to NPR and sample spoken word poems.

Suggestions for “extended learning”—“across the school year”—include students making podcasts, videos, and art installations, and researching black history museum websites. Books about African civilization before “contact with European colonizers and enslavers” are suggested, as are books about black life in America on such topics as “Enslavement and resistance,” “Black Power Movement,” “Black Lives Matter Movement,” “Black Excellence,” and on becoming “antiracist.” Ibram X. Kendi reminds that one must “connect the dots between the enslavement and present-day racist outcomes.”

Born on the Water may not appear as an official part of the curriculum, but all efforts are being made to get this propaganda to children. Citizens need to be aware.        

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