I am the victim of an incomplete education. Most of us are. I attended excellent schools and am grateful for the many ways I was invited into excellence, rigor and curiosity; however, like most Americans, I was exposed primarily to curricula written, sourced and designed by white Americans. The last two decades have revealed the large gaps in my knowledge and the work I must do to find a complete education. Having now encountered the incredible diversity of thought that functionally shaped America, I realize the insularity—the poverty even—of our educational norms. Aware of this, I have spent Black History Month as an apologist for a more robust education, as I remind us that American writing, thinking and creating is the product of many distinct voices. We have an incredible wealth of cultural, literary, historical and artistic legacies from every race, and we are diminished as a people when these voices are not actively taught in our schools.
When we are primarily exposed to American history and literature through the work of white folks, we are taught to privilege white perspectives. We begin to believe important cultural trends and innovations come exclusively from one segment of society. This narrow exposure lays a foundation for cultural racism, suggesting that people of color are physical in nature, while white people, with their higher order thinking and artistic expressions, meaningfully impact our national narratives, our literary heritage, and the production of culture.
American culture and history have been shaped by the voices, inventions and perspectives of a rich variety of people from all walks of life. The idea of American democracy suggests that every person has value and is capable of contributing to our whole in necessary ways. It is disingenuous for us to believe this while also pretending as if every important contribution to the common good came from one race of people. Although this hypocrisy that affirms equality while codifying systems of inequality is one of our great national habits, America itself has nevertheless been deeply influenced by contributions from all types of people.
In the South we love to think about our culture as one of genuine hospitality, gorgeous grounds, fine food and excellent music. Because we have a legacy of erasing or diminishing the contributions of people of color, our educations failed to teach us that so many Southern traditions only exist because people of color worked independently or collaboratively with whites to create norms of hospitality in settings we cherish. In many famed Southern kitchens, black cooks created the recipes published by white chefs, now beloved as Southern heritage. There is mounting evidence that whiskey distilling was mastered by enslaved men. Indeed, Jack Daniel’s Distillery now explains that Jack himself learned to distill from a slave named Nearis Green. Best practices in agriculture, building, sewing and carpentry were perfected by people of color. I offer these anecdotes to remind us any American historical narrative that does not include the contributions of black people is incomplete.
Most of us understand that our musical heritage is not complete without the contributions of jazz and the blues, the vast majority of which was created by African Americans. Jazz and rock n roll were largely commodified by whites but created by black Americans; indeed, Elvis became famous by publishing songs first performed by black folks. What do we sacrifice if we examine our cultural understanding of ourselves to make room for all those who contributed? Our educational norms often fail to reflect our entire heritage, but we need not remain in ignorance.
Some of our best early links between literature, sociology and ethnography were established by black writers like Zora Neale Hurston. A gifted writer of fiction in her own right, Hurston travelled through Florida recording the stories of African Americans as they experienced the world. Hurston helped prove that anthropology is incomplete without ethnography and auto-ethnography. Many of us were taught to celebrate early writers who noticed such cultural differences through travel like Herman Melville or Mark Twain. Black writers like James Weldon Johnson and Paule Marshall, far less read, continued and advanced this style of writing about the helpful collaborations and differences one discovers as they travel at home and abroad. Acknowledging the pull of diaspora while claiming our full history speaks powerfully into our current discussions about identity and the ways that we explore national loyalties. If such voices were celebrated in education then we might be better equipped to now face a world in which citizenship, migration and nationality seem to clash in violent ways.
In school, many of us were exposed through literature to the tension women face as they struggle to position themselves as whole subjects with needs, wants and the agency to act on those needs and wants. We read Emily Dickinson or Kate Chopin or Sylvia Plath, celebrating the singularity of their voices. Many of us were not exposed to writers like Nella Larson or Maya Angelou, though, who wrote compellingly of the intersection of gender and race in a woman’s desire for agency. Larsen’s work is accessible, exploring the life choices of a disappointed upper class woman in a way that Chopin’s work can’t. Activists like Sojourner Truth revealed the subtle ways that the voices of black women were diminished, doubted and ignored. She was a forerunner to feminism, asserting that gender and racial binaries can be used to silence women who do not conform to cultural norms.
So many voices shaped American identity, and we need not privilege African American contributions at the expense of Anglo Americans. Our cultural norms, heritage, conceptions of self, and identities are, in fact, shaped by the many brown, black and white voices of America. Our educational norm is to celebrate and memorialize the white voices, rather than to openly teach a wide variety of perspectives, recognizing the myriad voices that shaped American culture, literature and history. We are not products of black labor and white innovation; we are the culmination of many voices expressing their God-given giftedness to help us translate and understand experiences of life in America. Historical erasure ensures that we are victims of this incomplete education. The hope of this moment is that diminished voices have always existed, we only need to recognize our deficits and do the work to complete our education. All month I have tweeted books written by people of color. Follow @ExpandYourUs if you want to start reading!