Leonard Pitts: Fear is the great unspoken engine of American history

We need to ask the kids of all colors what they think about learning the truth.

(AP Photo/David Goldman) Najeli Rodriguez, 18, center, wearing her cap from her high school graduation this year, fist bumps Amanda Toussaint, during a youth organized Juneteenth protest outside the Statehouse Friday, June 19, 2020, in Providence, R.I. Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free 155 years ago. Now, with support growing for the racial justice movement, 2020 may be remembered as the year the holiday reached a new level of recognition.

Maybe white students deserve more credit than they get. Maybe — apologies to The Who — the kids are all right.

Leo Glaz seems to think so, based on a tweet I chanced upon last week. In it, he described himself as an educator who has spent his career in predominantly white private middle schools. “I think I teach ... history about as hard & honest as any teacher in america,” he wrote. “And when kids learn the truth about this country, they’re shocked and pissed off they’ve been lied to. Not uncomfortable.”

In so saying, he provided a voice, albeit by proxy, to the one group that’s been largely missing from the nation’s rancorous and ongoing debate over the teaching of African-American history. We’ve heard ad nauseam from lawmakers who say the subject must be banned because it makes white kids, yes, “uncomfortable.” And from parents who say it makes them ask painful questions.

But we haven’t heard from the kids themselves. If this teacher is right, maybe we should. Glaz, who told me by phone that he teaches at the Waverly School in Pasadena, said that in his experience, once kids — Black, white, brown and otherwise — learn this history, they tend to ask one thing: “How come they didn’t know this already? How come nobody ever told them this before?”

He’s convinced it’s not really because they’re too young. Rather, it’s because their elders themselves don’t know how to process America’s history of genocide, land theft, enslavement, rape, oppression and assault. Down that path lie stony truths that, of necessity, lend a mournful note to one’s singing of “God Bless The USA.”

Which is why some of us fear to walk that path. And one can make a case that fear is the great unspoken engine of American history.

As Glaz pointed out, one of the arguments against ending slavery was, " ‘If we give them their freedom, what’s going to happen to us?’ There’s the whole idea ... Black people are going to go around and drag white people out of their houses and murder them.” That notion repeats throughout history: If we let them hold office, if we give them the vote, if we allow them to be educated, if we stop terrorizing them on a daily basis, what will they do to us?

And the answer has always proven to be: nothing. But still that fear recurs, even now, in the debate over education. As Glaz frames it, “If we admit to all these falsehoods and wrongs, if we try to actually make good on this stuff, what’s going to happen to us?”

To understand the hardiness of that fear is to understand why so many of us feel the need to be packing heat in order to go out and get the mail.

I grant that I’m aware of no study offering empirical proof that kids are less traumatized by — and more open to — learning true American history than their elders. But I’ve seen plenty anecdotal evidence matching Glaz’s experience. And it leaves me wondering what the kids make of all this. Have they been taught the painful truths of American history? How did it affect them? And if they haven’t been taught, would they like to be?

I’d love to hear from them, either via email (lpitts@miamiherald.com) or Twitter (LeonardPittsJr1). Maybe we’ll revisit the subject in a future column. Not to idealize young people, who have a nasty habit of becoming adults, but I suspect they have no need or desire of being treated like hothouse flowers. I bet the kids are, indeed, all right.

It’s the grown-ups we have to worry about.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpittsmiamiherald.com