A few years back, I took my children on the train. Hemings Family Tour of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. We learned about the people who were enslaved under our third president.
The guide asked the group who was the most valuable slave on a plantation. Although I knew the answer instantly, I was part of the only Black family that was on the tour and wanted to know what the white people valued.
All the guests gave incorrect answers. I spoke up.
“The most valuable slave on a plantation is someone like me,” I said. “A woman of childbearing age, because I can produce more slaves for free.”
It was the right decision. All I could do was grab my children tightly and hold them.
I didn’t read that answer in a book somewhere. I knew it in my bones, because I’ve lived in this country for four decades and have taken in enough information to know that bodies like mine, particularly during the founding of this country, were and are valued only if we are profitable.Too often, Black students find themselves forced to conform to white culture and are subject to repeated instances of anti-Blackness to obtain an education.
Last month, high school students from Portland, Oregon were only 40 minutes away from our Portland home. participatedIn a virtual slave market, where students joked about how much they’d pay for their Black classmates.
They even said things like “All Blacks should die” and “They can run but they can’t hide.”
I’m horrified that the Black students had to find out literally how much — or how little — their bodies are valued by their white classmates.
Then, just a few days later, a teacher’s aide in the same district was placed on leave after she came to school in blackface.She claimed she was dressed up as a civil rights activist Rosa Parks and was protesting Oregon’s educator vaccination requirements.
I wanted to be shocked at this news. These incidents are ripple effects of a troubling policy decision by the Newberg School Board, which voted to ban teachers from hanging “Black Lives Matter” flags in their classrooms because the board sees them as political symbols.
This board doesn’t realize that these symbols communicate to Black students that they are loved, protected, and seen. This is crucial in a city like Newberg. According to the most recent public data, Black student make up only 1% of the student body.
The data also show that there are not one Black teacher within the district. These facts make flags even more important as they allow children to easily see who is on their side.
“Students need to know who their allies are when they feel the need to talk or a safe space just to be themselves,” MaryJane BachmeierOn behalf of the Newberg Education Association Executive Board, I spoke out against the ban on Black Lives Matter Flags being displayed at school boards.
She’s right. Newberg’s school board members also failed to recognize that by rejecting symbols of inclusivity and antiracism, they are normalizing hateful behavior. This one vote has led to children being left unprotected and exposed at school to a more racist environment.
What’s happening in Newberg, Oregon, isn’t an anomaly. All across the country, school boards are voting against historically accurate curriculums that are culturally sensitive. Students and teachers are being censored from saying “Black Lives Matter.”
It’s time we recognize that these actions by public officials who seem to wish to keep systems of oppression in place are the first push of a chain of dominoes that can lead to the kinds of racially insensitive actions we’ve seen in Newberg.
Black children will continue to learn from the adults around them the values they should be pursuing.
They will one day know in their bones what I did that day on the plantation.
Many people are working across the country to stop this from ever happening. I am the executive director of an education advocacy organization in Oregon, and we’ve seen educators, parents, students and school board members step up to advocate for students’ rights to learn from history and feel seen in school.
We voted for more than 50 school board leaders in the state this year because we know how dangerous it can be to have closed-minded people leading.
Schools are the first place where we see the humanity — or inhumanity — of people not in our families. As such, all school leaders — from teachers to local elected officials — must take responsibility for the ripple effect of their disregard for communities of color.
If they don’t, we all should worry about what kind of trauma Black kids will carry around by the time they’re my age, based on the harrowing experiences they’re having today.