Intentions & Vocabulary

“Good intention is the hall pass through history.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

I have always been and will always be an avid reader. When I was a kid, I had six or seven books going at a time; all were strategically placed in different locations in my life so I’d never find myself without something to read. Once on a road trip from Oklahoma to Michigan, I brought a stack of books about two feet tall with me. My mom questioned the size of the stack and I explained that there was no way I could possibly risk running out of things to read on such a long trip. I recently accused my mom of not reading to me as a kid – I can’t remember her or my dad reading books to me at bedtime. Her response to that accusation? “Well, DEAR, as soon as you could do it yourself, you refused to let anyone do it for you.” I have a four year old in my life who will probably be similarly inclined.

In that stash of six to seven books, one would almost always be from the Little House on the Prairie series. I literally read the covers off my mom’s collection of those books. I dressed up as Laura Ingalls Wilder for Halloween one year. I lived for watching the shows during summer mornings (or sick days) when we didn’t have school or swim practice. I gave copies of those books to friends when they had children. Flash forward to last summer. Wilder’s name was in the spotlight when theĀ Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) voted to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. I had not given a single thought EVER to the problematic portrayals of indigenous or black people in her books until reading the work of Debbie Reese (you can find her post about the award here ). Debbie Reese established American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) in 2006 to “provide critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.” I follow her on Twitter and I am incredibly grateful for her work to bring attention and urgency to these issues. I have learned so much.

Reading more of Debbie’s work got me thinking, once again, how incomplete my education of the history of this country is and how much I’ve taken for granted as a white, middle class, Christian, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied woman (note – only one of those labels is considered outside of the norm). I did well in my history classes in middle and high school because I was great at memorizing definitions and answering questions at the end of the chapter. I was never, not once, challenged to think about the historical perspectives I was presented with as being incomplete. I’m currently reading Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Dr. Ibram X Kendi along with one of my friends. Our consistent reaction to every chapter we’ve read thus far has been “how the &*^% am I just now learning this?”

Two of those definitions from high school I could recite off the top of my head were for “manifest destiny” and the “Three-Fifths Compromise.” I could tell you that manifest destiny was the belief that the expansion of the US throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable. I could tell you that the Three-Fifths Compromise said that in counting a state’s population to determine representation, a slave would be counted as 3/5 of a whole person. But seriously, never once did I have a teacher stop and be like “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS BS?” Or even just stop and say “let’s think about this some more….what might this be saying about our country, our so-called ‘Founding Fathers’ and their moral footing?” I’m grateful for the recent conversations I’ve had with some high school history teachers in my district who are committed to presenting their students with a more complete view of these “vocabulary words.”

I have had to seek out my own learning opportunities to fill in the gaps with the stories and perspectives I’ve missed. I’ve missed so many. One book I can’t recommend enough in understanding more about those stories and perspectives is Carol Anderson’s White Rage. I wrote about one of her chapters in this post on my previous site. Our country’s history is filled with marginalization, dehumanization, oppression, and genocide. Reading about the mental, moral, and political gymnastics that our white founders performed to justify slavery would be laughable if it weren’t so incredibly tragic. I’m so tired of the “well they were a product of their time” excuse. I’m so tired. What does it even mean to be a product of one’s time? Recently someone told me on Facebook that life was “unfair” back then for lots of groups of people and implied that I needed to better understand the context of the time. Again, what does “unfair” mean when you’re trying to survive the horrors of chattel slavery?

I’m also tired of the “well they had good intentions” nonsense. I find it very lazy to fall back on the excuse of “I didn’t mean to hurt that person” or “it’s not my fault they took it that way.” It reminds me of the refereeing I have to do between my six and four year old children when they get in a fight. Recently, the #cleartheair crew engaged in a rich conversation about the common group norm of “presuming positive intentions” and the potential damage that can lead to in letting the person who caused harm not have to take ownership of the outcome of that harm. I can’t find the thread but if I do, I’ll add it here.

I was able to hear Dr. Kendi speak at the Antiracist Book Festival in April and he talked a good deal about the danger of always focusing on intentions. Intentions are hard to prove. Someone is always going to be able to say they did or didn’t intend for something to turn out the way that it did. Rather, he, and other antiracist activists, argue that you must focus instead on outcomes. What was the outcome of this action or policy? Did it result in positive or negative outcomes for some over others? If so, who might be disproportionately benefiting from this policy? Who might be disproportionately hurt? These are the types of questions I learned first from Cornelius Minor and we are asking in my school about the instructional practices we employ with our students.

We have to start complicating history more. I was presented with a sunshine and rainbows view of our history; a history I should be proud to call mine and to never question whether the people who founded the country might have had some “issues.” I was implicitly taught never to question the greatness of this nation; to do so is unpatriotic and shameful (see Colin Kaepernick) and you “if you don’t love it, you should leave it” (KKK slogan, also what the current president said this week). I’m going to leave you with the words of one of my most favorite writers, Clint Smith III. He wrote and recorded a poem he entitles ” A letter to five of the presidents who owned slaves while they were in office.” It’s indeed brief, but spectacular.

If you’re up for complicating history with me, let me know. I am always looking to grow my learning squad.

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