Governor Ron DeSantis’s website includes a page devoted to his proposed Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act. Florida’s tax dollars are paying for courses that make kids hate America, he says. Critical race theory has invaded our elementary schools, taking away our kids’ ability to think for themselves, indoctrinating them with racial hatred and even communism.
The page includes a series of examples of what the Governor calls critical race theory. These include a Philadelphia grade school where students were forced to celebrate “Black communism” and perform a mock rally to free Angela Davis, the activist jailed for a year (and then exonerated) in 1971-72, and the Buffalo schools, which forced kindergartners to watch videos of dead Black children. Each item on the list ends with a “More here” link. Those links take you to somewhat hysterical articles describing these outrages.
Notably, all the articles appear in the same publication, City Journal, published by the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, most of them written by Christopher Rufo, who conflates nearly all references to race in education with critical race theory and references to LGBTQ persons as “grooming.” Rufo’s Wikipedia page quotes Kimberle Crenshaw, a critical race theorist, as saying, “what Rufo and Republicans ‘are calling critical race theory is a whole range of things, most of which no one would sign on to, and many of the things in it are simply about racism.'”
I scurried down this rabbit hole today after reading the poem below by Nikki Giovanni. I realized that readers and students would not understand Giovanni’s poem unless they understood the history she alludes to: Pullman porters, Black newspapers, Thurgood Marshall, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Rosa Parks. Most importantly, Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and murdered by white men in Mississippi in 1955. If I were teaching high school now, I would think twice about sharing this poem, and I would take care in teaching my students about lynchings like Emmett Till’s. Certain authorities would be quick to label such a lesson “critical race theory,” because it’s about ugly aspects of American history. I never learned about Emmett Till in high school, but I should have.
Here’s what I want to ask Governor DiSantis, Christopher Rufo, and Marjorie Taylor Greene: Should public school teachers be allowed to teach high-school students what happened to Emmett Till? If not, our students will not understand this poem, they will not understand the Civil Rights Movement, and they will not understand much of the pent-up anger and grief that erupts every time a Black male like Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, or Tamar Rice is killed. As Giovanni eloquently shows, there are connections to be made.
Rosa Parks This is for the Pullman Porters who organized when people said they couldn’t. And carried the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender to the Black Americans in the South so they would know they were not alone. This is for the Pullman Porters who helped Thurgood Marshall go south and come back north to fight the fight that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education because even though Kansas is west and even though Topeka is the birth- place of Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote the powerful “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” it was the Pullman Porters who whispered to the traveling men both the Blues Men and the “Race” Men so that they both would know what was going on. This is for the Pullman Porters who smiled as if they were happy and laughed like they were tickled when some folks were around and who silently rejoiced in 1954 when the Supreme Court announced its 9—0 decision that “sepa- rate is inherently unequal.” This is for the Pullman Porters who smiled and welcomed a fourteen-year-old boy onto their train in 1955. They noticed his slight limp that he tried to disguise with a doo-wop walk; they noticed his stutter and probably understood why his mother wanted him out of Chicago during the summer when school was out. Fourteen-year-old Black boys with limps and stutters are apt to try to prove themselves in dangerous ways when mothers aren’t around to look after them. So this is for the Pullman Porters who looked over that fourteen-year-old while the train rolled the reverse of the Blues Highway from Chicago to St. Louis to Memphis to Mississippi. This is for the men who kept him safe; and if Emmett Till had been able to stay on a train all summer he would have maybe grown a bit of a paunch, certainly lost his hair, probably have worn bifocals and bounced his grand- children on his knee telling them about his summer riding the rails. But he had to get off the train. And ended up in Money, Mississippi. And was horribly, brutally, inexcusably, and unac- ceptably murdered. This is for the Pullman Porters who, when the sheriff was trying to get the body secretly buried, got Emmett’s body on the northbound train, got his body home to Chicago, where his mother said: I want the world to see what they did to my boy. And this is for all the mothers who cried. And this is for all the people who said Never Again. And this is about Rosa Parks whose feet were not so tired, it had been, after all, an ordi- nary day, until the bus driver gave her the opportunity to make history. This is about Mrs. Rosa Parks from Tuskegee, Alabama, who was also the field secretary of the NAACP. This is about the moment Rosa Parks shouldered her cross, put her worldly goods aside, was willing to sacrifice her life, so that that young man in Money, Mississippi, who had been so well protected by the Pullman Porters, would not have died in vain. When Mrs. Parks said “NO” a passionate movement was begun. No longer would there be a reliance on the law; there was a higher law. When Mrs. Parks brought that light of hers to expose the evil of the system, the sun came and rested on her shoulders bringing the heat and the light of truth. Others would follow Mrs. Parks. Four young men in Greensboro, North Carolina, would also say No. Great voices would be raised singing the praises of God and exhorting us “to forgive those who trespass against us.” But it was the Pullman Porters who safely got Emmett to his granduncle and it was Mrs. Rosa Parks who could not stand that death. And in not being able to stand it. She sat back down.