The Associated Press has a story about a Michigan father who is suing his daughter’s school district, because her fifth-grade teacher read out loud from a book on slavery.
The student in question, Jala Petree, is black, and is said to have suffered negative effects to her “conditions of learning duties and the advantages of her further education,” along with her “mental and emotional well-being, past, present and future.” Her father, Jamey Petree, is suing the district for $50,000.00 in damages. Although Mr. Petree first inquired about the lesson last April, and the lesson itself was presented over three months previously, the lawsuit was filed in early November.
The reading came from a book called From Slave Ship to Freedom Road by Julius Lester. Julius Lester is a prolific author of books for children and adults, with over 43 titles to his credit, including a Newbery honor for another book on the same topic, To Be A Slave. He is the son of a Methodist minister from St.Louis. You have already guessed what color his skin is.
From Slave Ship to Freedom Road is described by Scholastic as “An innovative picture book for older children, this unique collaboration addresses the history of slavery, while demanding the attention and interaction of readers of all races.” Apparently, demanding the interaction of Jala Petree was extremely traumatic. The author has dedicated himself to frank and serious discussion of the history of slavery, which includes “difficult truths as whippings and lynchings, the bodies of Africans floating near slave ships in the ocean, an angry slave tending white children, attempted escapes, and eventually, the final, joyful road to freedom . . . and a new uncertainty.”
All of these things happened. They will not un-happen if we ignore them. Jala Petree’s emotional and intellectual development will not be enhanced by erasing history. It should be obvious that Julius Lester did not set out to maliciously traumatize children. The Freedom Road part of his book is as important as the slave ship… and they are both important.
History has long been one of the most politicized aspects of education. Control of the past shapes the way young minds see the future. Popular culture also reshapes history to serve politicized ends. It’s a shame to think a generation of young kids grew up thinking Disney’s politically-correct Pocohontas bore any resemblance to what actually happened. Now we’ve got a lawsuit over an accurate depiction of slavery, with period language included, by a writer who devoted his life to teaching both children and adults the truth. A word of advice to the Detroit school system: get those Mark Twain books off the shelf right now.
If Jala Petree is deeply upset by the history of slavery in America, I heartily encourage her to forge those emotions into a firm resolve to eliminate it around the world. There will be work for her to do when she graduates, because it’s still out there. May she grow into one of its most tenacious enemies.