Seven score and 18 years ago on a Thursday, standing on the grounds of a Civil War battlefield that was being dedicated as a national cemetery for the Union troops who died on its soil, President Abraham Lincoln solidified the United States creed in his Gettysburg Address that “(the nation’s fathers)…conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” I suppose Lincoln knew he needed to convey, remind, and perhaps codify the justification for the spilling of blood by Americans on Americans. I also suppose he had no idea those words would be the consistent promissory note that our nation would attempt to cash in time and time again.
With each generation after the Gettysburg Address, we as a nation have attempted to move closer and closer to our “all men are created equal” ideal; our doctrines boldly name it while simultaneously struggle to live up to it. ”Conceived in liberty” at the beginning of the line clings to me. The conception of this country in the womb of liberty has always struck me as the true promise of our country. It signals that our country’s origins are a DNA concoction of the Indigenous tribes’ homage to the land as their sanctuary for their existence, and the colonists’ drafting of their intentions to seize that same land to become the colonies of the United States. Again, a duality.
That word “liberty” signals to me that the colonists and certainly the drafters of the Declaration of Independence knew the undergird of liberty could not be sacrificed, and relied on the strength of its defining purpose to wage wars and bargain treaties in the name of liberty. When doing a close examination of that word, one could simply state it means the power to make choices. Choices essentially equal freedom. One could argue that choices are mostly defined in the U.S. by economic status, and economic status is predicated or assumed by acquiring knowledge, a trade, or a skill. To know a skill, build a profit off a concept, and or grow in a trade requires that one is adequately prepared with the basics to maneuver through the learning. Exercising choice is not happenstance: it is part preparation and part network. These livelihood strategies are predicated on the level of education one obtains.
I would imagine this was the revelation Frederick Douglas had when his enslaver was furious and frightened by the prospect that Douglas was being taught to read. The enslaver’s response alone to finding his wife teaching Douglas the alphabet shifted Douglas’s attention to the hidden treasure that reading would afford him. With his phonemic awareness skills, he soon discovered the true plight he and his enslaved counterparts were in. Articles, laws, even how-to manuals were created to ensure that the sanctity of slavery was kept. Douglas sensed freedom with every word and sentence dissected. In fact, he used his freedom tool of literacy to not only escape enslavement but to help many others. Douglas demonstrated the action of liberty, or rather, the freedom that is afforded when knowledge, academic skills, and creative envisage that occurs when one activates all modalities of learning into a new schema.
If literacy to the enslaved was liberty, then illiteracy was necessary for continued enslavement. The anti-literacy laws were an extension of the slave codes created by Southern slave owners to ensure enslaved Africans did not acquire the adequate skills to read and write, thus subjugating themselves against the possibilities of manipulating the system to freedom. It is important to note that these laws weren’t meant as only a technical strategy to prevent the enslaved from reading and writing but as an adaptive tool to prove further that the enslaved Africans did not hold the intellectual capacity to learn to read and were ultimately inferior to whites. This made the arguments of half-human/three-fifths a man more palpable and easier to consume in the mind and spirit not only of the Southern White but to the rest of the country. It most certainly played a role in spreading racism against the enslaved Africans.
I point out these nuisances to recognize that the DNA of the systemic racist practices are replicated in the low expectations of literacy development of students of color today, long after the anti-literacy laws and slave codes have been abolished. There is evidence of the explicit and implicit bias of low-level expectations for students of color today, from lowering the grade-level of reading assignments to vague teaching of reading practices that are void of phonemic development and word recognition, and the overrepresentation of students of color in Special Education. One might argue these legacies are birthed out of our nation’s origins of systemic racist expectations that created laws, policies, and standards of practices deemed for students of color.
With each turn of political administration, eradicating illiteracy in marginalized communities falls predictably short, mainly in communities of color and low socioeconomic status. There is very little attention paid to the historical ramifications of systems of oppression that play significant roles in dismantling academic achievement building blocks. Two questions to ponder are: What effects of the anti-literacy laws still linger in our schools today? Has the “How to advance the intellect of people of color?” approach haunted communities of color for many centuries both within and outside of the communities? All children have the right to access a high quality education and good teaching is good teaching.
I simply want to remind us that we are the system. If we teach, lead, or support, we are the system. We can both learn about the racist history of our education systems and choose to play a role in its dismantling. We can evaluate and question our own biases and eradicate how they play a role in our practices and norms. We can grow our knowledge of the ways policies, procedures, and belief systems have marginalized students. We can hunger for understanding the way Douglas hungered for literacy, which led to his liberty. We can hold ourselves and our nation accountable for the elevation of the teaching profession, to a level that exemplifies the diversity of our country and the professional stature of many other expert practitioners in other fields.
Otherwise, in 2021, how will we move closer to the promise of you, America? Our country is undergoing all types of reckonings. What will history say about the work that was done to serve our students amidst a health pandemic all while reimagining what an equitable education looks like in the middle of a racial pandemic?
I promise to stand with all educators as we continue to ideate, innovate, prototype, fail, and get back up again in service of equity. I will make mistakes but I’d rather fall forward in my efforts to support an education system that sees the promise and intellect of EVERY student and nurtures a love of learning, literacy, and numeracy in all subjects so we can finally make good on the promissory note of our nation and experience true liberty.
This is part two of a three-part series.