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Foundational Fairytales And The Lies They Tell On Books, Children And Truth

Above Photo: “School Begins” Puck Magazine, January 25, 1899 | Depiction of Spanish American War as U.S. establishes itself as new imperial force in the Americas directly taking over Spanish ex-colonies| Image also depicts U.S. educational policies of the time, a period in which children of color were seen as less than human, animalized as non-intellectual beings, and were clearly excluded from spaces of learning. In the image, children of color appear either as complete outsiders, as beings who lack intellectual capacities, or as white peoples’ servants, manifesting the dominant thought of the time.

Only four books survived.

There used to be a time in occupied America when only whites were allowed to write, read, and publish books. In fact, when Europeans started occupying the continent in 1492, one of the first things they did was burn the thousands of existing books Indigenous people had written in an attempt to destroy peoples’ existing relationship with books and their contained knowledges. According to those initial colonizers, destroying the written ensured we lost access to writing, to our ways of thinking, and to centuries-old acquired knowledges on mathematics, medicine, astronomy, maps, history, plant science, poetry, literatures, and even tax-records. Only four books survived the first 100 years of the occupation, in the entire continent. This was a process Europeans paired with genocide of Indigenous populations, bringing the then existing population of Abya Yala (termed “America” by the colonizers) from an approximate 100 million people in 1492, to 2 million by 1592, a fact we hardly ever get to learn at schools or universities.

Later, through a series of anti-literacy laws that made it illegal for enslaved and free people of color to read or write, -and through the systemic exclusion of Indigenous, Black, Brown and later Asian lives from spaces of learning and knowledge production (as well as reproduction)-, Eurocentric frameworks of thought and white supremacy ensured themselves long lasting life in books published and circulated in the Americas –all types of books.  With some exceptions, from the 1500s to the 1960s, whites, and more specifically, white males, wrote an abundance of racist and sexist science books, geography books, philosophy, medical journals, scholastic magazines, the first world encyclopedias, novels, short stories, plays, nursery rhymes, and school textbooks, setting the foundations and theoretical frameworks for the academic disciplines that structure our school and university curricula to this day: the Humanities, the Social Sciences, and the Sciences.

Masked as objective, “universal” disciplines, these areas of study are actually grounded in white supremacist and patriarchal thought, frameworks, and content.

Guiding the excessive production of books by white males during those first 450 years of white settler colonialism in the Americas, was the very concept of race. Invented by whites post 1492 to justify genocide against Indigenous populations, the taking of lands, the systemic oppression of Indigenous knowledge-worlds, and later to give logic to slavery and other forms of oppressions against people of color, the made-up concept of race is based on the idea that there is one superior race that can possess, write, study, think of the world, and thus control it, and four other “inferior” races who, “lacking the intellectual” or “civilizatory” “capacities” of whites, can only be owned, studied, be written about, be thought of, and thus, be controlled.

Frantz Fanon described the ensuing system of racism as a hierarchy that can best be understood along the line of the human. Placed above the line, are those classified as fully human. Below it, are those classified as sub-human, or non-human. Whereas the humanity of those considered fully human is always granted and recognized, that of the sub-human is not. Instead, their humanity is continuously negated, questioned, and/or diminished.

During the 1800s and early 1900s, these so called “men of letters,” as these white pseudo-scholars called themselves, even went around the world measuring people of color’s skulls and brains with the intent of proving that whites had larger skulls, and thus a higher intellectual capacity than any of the other so called four “races.” Their publications were used to justify not just continued land theft in Turtle Island (North America), but also further genocide and oppression of Indigenous populations worldwide as the United States invaded and colonized territories in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s, meanwhile internally continuing genocidal policies against First Nations of Turtle Island through massacres and the American Indian Boarding school system existing all the way into the 1970s, a system which is well known to have been studied and revered by Adolf Hitler.

White males wrote a lot during those first 450 years of occupied America, all the while illegalizing and/or limiting the capacities of Indigenous people and people of color to write and publish.

As a result, the representation of white patriarchal histories, stories, knowledges, experiences, perspectives and imaginaries became centered in books produced in the Americas, while Indigenous and people of color’s experiences, histories, stories, knowledges, perspectives, and imaginaries became decentered, when not entirely omitted, or as it has also been the case, distorted. The realm of children’s literature and school textbooks have been no exception to the expressions, manifestations and developments of white supremacist patriarchy in the United States.

“Columbus discovered America”

“We are a nation of immigrants”

“Racism is a fixed problem of the past”

“July 4th marks the birth of our nation”

“Thanksgiving”

Integral to these fictitious tales is a veneration of white settler colonialism, genocide, and patriarchy. And yet they get taught to our children as truths, the textbook conglomerates continue publishing them as history, and we are even required to celebrate each one of them through annual holidays and dedicated monthly school curricula.

The “Columbus discovered America” fairytale ensures all pre-existing life, societies, knowledges, histories, ways of being, existing, and thinking prior to the European occupation of AbyaYala are rendered unimportant to students who learn about the history of the Americas. Under the Discovery myth, Indigenous populations are not just “backwards”, “submissive,” “savage”, and/or “prehistoric,” they are also made to be “nomadic,” implying Indigenous people had no civilization, no history, and therefore no future. But one cannot discover what already knew itself as existing. And the 100 million Indigenous people who lived in Abya Yala at the time of the 1492 European invasion surely knew they existed. Yet the “Columbus discovered America” fairytale is among the first ones taught to children, often during the Pre-Kindergarten years. It has been taught to my own daughter, for example, during her Pre-K, Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Grades. She is about to enter 4th grade and has been schooled in both Los Angeles and now Central America.

The Columbus discovery myth is certainly a continental myth. With its dissemination, children are taught to glorify white settler colonialism while diminishing the achievements and knowledges of societies that had been here for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Columbus, rendering them invisible. With its dissemination, this October/November standard lesson also cements colonizers’ perspectives as universal, “objective” truths, serving to altogether avoid conversation on genocide, Indigenous resistances, Indigenous world-knowledges, and their severed futures. The Discovery myth also feeds straight into yet another myth, that of “Thanksgiving.” Both lies render settlers who committed atrocious acts of genocide and stole lands as “heroic” “explorers” or “fortunate, well-meaning individuals” who “befriended” “nomadic,” “savages,” or “worse than heathen” “Indians.” These, in turn, “helped” them get “through a tough winter” in the “New World.” Thus, the fact of genocide and the fact of land theft are entirely obliterated by these fairytales.

The “We are a nation of immigrants” fairytale is a grounding lie in America’s classrooms.  Inserted throughout the K-12 social studies and history curriculum, it downright erases the fact of genocide of Indigenous populations, European land theft of a continent they then labeled “America”, and the enslavement of millions of African peoples whom were forcibly brought into stolen lands. Neither Africans nor Indigenous peoples “immigrated” into the “nation.”

This grounding lie is also connected to the July 4th myth, which erases the actual foundations of the settler nation, placing it in 1776, as opposed to placing it at its actual birth date: genocide, land theft, and the enslavement of those whom were forced to literally build the nation beginning 1492.

The “Racism is a fixed problem of the past” fairytale is presented every school year through dedicated Civil Rights Era lesson plans mostly centered on the achievements of select Black individuals, “heroes,” “heroines,” and specific moments from 1954 to 1968 -Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the Montgomery bus boycott, sit-ins, and nonviolent black protests. The fairytale selectively omits other moments, organizations, and figures such as Malcolm X’s, as well as the transcendental contributions of Natives, Asian-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, white women and men to the period. Furthermore, the fairytale not only presents an existing and deeply rooted structural problem as a solved situation, “a thing of the past,” but it also presents the “solved” problem of racism in a limiting Black and white binary, which overlooks the ongoing systemic relationships of white supremacy to the varying communities of color inhabiting Turtle Island, Indigenous communities, white communities, and the land we stand on. From this fairytale, children learn that the U.S. “once made a horrible mistake against the Black community but solved it, first by freeing enslaved people, and then by allowing them to vote and ride a bus” – thus fully negating foundational genocide, land occupation, and the enduring operations of white supremacy.

**Insisting on teaching the fairytales are the same people who oppose teaching the history of white settler colonialism, race, and gender in the classrooms because the former is antithetical to the latter, and vice versa.

Opponents of teaching these subjects fear that conversation on these topics admonish all white people for being oppressors. They further claim that by avoiding these topics, we “protect” young ones from “harm,” “exposure,” “indoctrination,” “divisiveness,” and even avoid them the “discomfort” of “collective guilt” for the wrongs of the past. The claims could not be further away from what actually happens when we have these conversations with students.

“I’ve been lied to all this time!”

“I never knew this!”

As educator of Ethnic Studies who has mostly taught first and second year white college students 18 to 22 years of age in U.S. classrooms, I have had the opportunity to witness first-hand the results of 12 years of such claimed “protection.”

“I’ve been lied to all this time!” and “I never knew this!” are usually white college students’ first reactions to the material and discussions they engage in the Ethnic Studies classrooms, a space where white students usually have a first opportunity to discuss white settler colonialism, race, patriarchy, and the convergence of these systems in molding our society’s power structures. Most white students feel cheated, lied to, and/or troubled for not having been exposed to these essential conversations and pieces of information earlier. “Protected” is not a word they use to describe the experience. Neither is “admonished,” “divided,” “indoctrinated” or “exposed.”  Guilty sometimes – guilty for not having known earlier, a fault not of their own. Yet as we go on to unpack and understand how white privilege, white supremacy and patriarchy are, indeed, not faults of their own, nor their generations’, rather well-designed and entrenched systems we are conditioned into upholding since the time we are born, choosing to disrupt these then becomes a newfound purpose for many students. And the kinds of questions students begin to formulate after, unsettle the fairytaled narratives taught to them since the moment they first entered a classroom as children.

For white students, engaging in these critical and informed discussions while breaking away from lies, is liberatory. It allows them the avenues, vocabularies, tools, and critical thinking skills needed to be able to question officialized narratives, disrupt engineered silences, and understand how power works, benefits us, or obstruct us. These lessons help them make more unbiased choices in their present and future lives, -the outcomes of this being truly endless.

For students of color, Indigenous students and other historically marginalized students, being able to openly and safely speak about issues that directly affect their livelihoods and shape their experiences is life-affirming. For one, they feel included in their daily environment and curriculum, helping strengthen their sense of belonging in a space that was clearly not designed for them. And second, these conversations in the classroom help validate them, their histories, their families’, their experiences and their lives, often resulting in an assuring sense of self and community.  Simply put, truthful conversations make students of color, Indigenous students, and marginalized students feel seen.

Studies also show that students who have the opportunity to speak about white supremacy, race, and gender, specifically in the Ethnic or Gender Studies classroom, become more engaged students, resulting in better grades, higher graduation and retention rates, a better school experience for historically marginalized student populations, and enhanced analytical and critical thinking skills for all.

Against silence

The foundational fairytales of the settler nation may be pretty stories, but they are also lies. And as such, they will continue negatively impacting young ones, harvesting harm, and offering us a false sense of self, nation, and land.

As a mother to a Black/Indigenous/Chinese child of the Americas, at stake is always my daughter’s sense of value, belonging, and her sense of power.  If I am not consistent with counteracting the fairytales, she loses the opportunity to know the knowledge-worlds of her ancestors, the incredible stories of enduring resistances that allow her to be here today, her infinite potential to be as much a creator of history, as she is a learner, and the realities of the land she and her peers walk on. Knowing history, learning about the ugly of the past, and offering her the tools to connect past with present, empowers her in ways the school curriculum does not. Knowing the past saves her from a sense of unimportance in our world. Because for children of color, for Indigenous children, the curriculum and its many lies can easily equate to damaging invisibility.

For the past two years, while on book tour, I have also had the opportunity to engage thousands of children at schools, libraries, and virtual classrooms on the very topics of white settler colonialism, they Discovery myth, and racism.

What I have found is that yes, indeed, children are perfectly capable of engaging topics pertaining to the past and involving violence. They are used to it, anyway. The Civil War, chattel slavery, World War I and II, and the Holocaust, to name but a few examples, are just some of the already required conversations and lessons of the K-12 core curriculum. And so are celebrations that involve not just the past, but also a commemoration of violence -Veterans Day, Memorial Day.

Why, then, continuing censorship of 1492 in the K-12 curriculum? Why ban critical discussions on race and the role of patriarchy in informing and shaping ideology in the Americas? Why prohibit conversation on the systemic realities of white supremacy and its continued negation of genocide? Why make systemic land theft invisible in textbooks? And why insist on fake narratives while impeding educators from engaging honest ones?

Truth is, an inevitable sense of awareness and justice forms in the mind of children when they are presented with truthful histories, narratives and stories. These stories then influence the way children see themselves, how they make decisions, and how they interact with life around them, and with the land.

Our happily ever after, then, will only begin to occur when we can allow children, and ourselves, the right to know. In the meantime, banning children from these conversations will only continue fattening the fairies’ dust-pouches, vanishing all possibility of restorative conversations, and dangerously moving farther and farther away from the possibility of justice, for all.

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