Academic freedom lecturer addresses teaching of racial history


Despite increasing efforts among conservatives to censor historical racial issues in public school curriculum, recent demonstrations from young Americans point to a more enlightened, accepting generation to come.

Jamelle Bouie made that point Feb. 6 as the keynote speaker for U-M’s 32nd annual Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.

The New York Times columnist and CBS political analyst used the lecture to highlight the ways in which historic struggles to represent racial inequalities in education remain prevalent today.

“The way we teach history in this country is far from perfect, but it is inclusive enough, broad-minded enough to have nurtured in millions of young people tolerance, an awareness of injustice and a host of other egalitarian values,” Bouie told the Hutchins Hall crowd and those watching over Zoom. “Anyone who spends time with younger students will see this. It’s hard to miss.”

Photo of Jamelle Bouie delivering the Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom
New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie delivered the 32nd annual Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom. (Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

The lecture presented by U-M’s Faculty Senate is named for three faculty members who were punished in the 1950s for refusing to testify before a congressional committee about their political beliefs.

During his talk, titled “Revisiting Du Bois and ‘The Propaganda of History,’” Bouie said several government leaders and conservative groups are attempting to ban curricula about critical race theory and discussions of race in public schools across the United States.

“Some very powerful people in this country are leading a direct assault on the teaching of any kind of broad and inclusive history of this country in our public schools,” he said.

In 2019, The New York Times published “The 1619 Project,” a long-form narrative composed of essays aiming to reframe America’s history around slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. Bouie, who published an essay in the collection, said officials tried to ban the use of “The 1619 Project” in schools.

In further retaliation, the Trump administration released an initiative called the 1776 Commission to support “patriotic education.”

“The actual issue is that giving students the tools to understand their country in a fuller and more inclusive way might lead them to want to change it in fundamental ways. It might lead them to a more nuanced view of our institutions. And it might even lead them to think that we could do better with new institutions,” Bouie said.

Bouie said this debate about representation in schools corresponds to the 1935 book “Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880” by W.E.B. Du Bois.

The recently reissued book contains the essay “The Propaganda of History,” in which Du Bois wrote about the dangers of misrepresenting the role of Black Americans during Reconstruction, and the racism and obstacles they endured.

“There was something so wonderfully apt about the fact that this book, written in the early 1930s, is reissued at a moment when it more or less is commenting on exactly what’s happening in the world,” Bouie said.

While conservatives’ attempts to manipulate history as a means to reproduce themselves within future generations remain today, Bouie said, there is also an increasing number of young people who are educating themselves about inequalities and speaking out against injustice.

After the death of George Floyd in 2020, Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country. Bouie said the diversity and the passion and urgency demonstrated in the marches exemplified the evolving landscape surrounding civil rights issues.

“It was millions of people of all different races and backgrounds. It was millions of white Americans, including millions of white teenagers, who felt something — anger, despair, injustice,” he said.

“I do not think you get the kind of protests that met the murder of George Floyd — protests that brought millions of these young people to the streets — without at least the influence of this change in how we talk about this country and how we talk about this country’s history.”

Bouie said he was particularly moved by the story of a white, teenage girl who decided to gather family and friends to form a protest in Southhampton County, Virginia, near Bouie’s hometown.

“She felt a sense of empathy with a middle-aged, low-income Black man on the opposite side of the country and wanted to do something about it. And that to me speaks to sort of this formative moment that’s happening,” he said.

Bouie said he hopes the protests’ momentum continues, and that education will reflect how the struggles of the past remain in the present. Understanding the past, he said, is crucial in understanding the society we live in today.

“We’re kind of in a now-or-never moment for pushing back,” he said. “Either you do it now or you make your peace about what’s going to happen. So, at the risk of sounding a little optimistic — perhaps to the point of delusion — I think this makes me feel good about the situation.

“The truth of the matter is that for us, the United States is a country whose often ugly past very much shapes our present in that it shapes this present in ways that point to a future much more nuanced, more complex and more uncertain, and also more hopeful and more ripe with possibilities.”


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