Schools in Virginia and South Carolina made news recently for banning or challenging books in their school libraries. In North Carolina, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson has singled out books he considers unacceptable.
I signed up to serve on the media review committee for my middle daughter’s public school library. Meetings are at 7:45 a.m. I am not a morning person and I do not know how I am going to manage one more thing, but as the white Christian mother of three public school students it is very important to me to have influence over what materials my daughters are exposed to in school.
It’s critical to me that the things my children read about American history make them uncomfortable. I want them to be deeply, deeply troubled.
I need them to be exposed to the primary source documents of the transatlantic slave trade. I need their textbooks to include firsthand accounts of families separated on auction blocks, pictures of the account books reconciling human bodies to pounds of molasses, instructions on how men can be “broken.” I need their teachers to show them pictures of the bricks that still lie in Charleston’s open air market that bear palm prints of the enslaved children who laid them and then ask them to think about what kinds of prejudices and assumptions allowed American citizens to turn a blind eye to the human depravity that built the land of the free and home of the brave.
And, yes, I want my daughters to read “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. I want them to weep all the way through and be changed by it. I will comfort them and validate their pain and encourage them to take mental health breaks. But I will teach them to center not their own pain in reading it, but that of Margaret Garner, the actual person who lived it.
I want them to know the story of what happened on this Kentucky plantation so that they become uncomfortable with the beauty of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” verses of which romanticize slavery in the “commonwealth” of Kentucky.
I want my daughters to learn that these atrocities happened to humans just like us and that they were perpetrated by humans just like us. I want them to struggle to understand how so many ordinary American citizens condoned violence and depravity, just as my elementary school encouraged me to struggle to understand how so many ordinary German citizens condoned the Holocaust when we read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
How we teach our history to our children has become the latest battle in our vicious culture war — but my thinking isn’t influenced by any contemporary thought leaders. My perspective comes from years of studying, teaching and preaching Scripture — specifically the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The scribes and scholars meticulously preserved the details of the most egregious failures of their political and religious leaders and the ordinary people don’t come off much better. Even the most celebrated Biblical heroes — Moses, Abraham, David — have their moral failures permanently preserved in the biblical record.
Why? Because Scripture isn’t propaganda. The Bible wasn’t written to make the people proud, but to make them faithful — to God, and to their founding document the Covenant. Soberly confronting how profoundly their ancestors failed to live up to the nation’s foundational values helped motivate contemporary readers to make different, better, more faithful choices.
I want my girls to struggle with American history. But it’s not because I want them to hate America or themselves. I want them to struggle with the past so that they can fall in love with all that America could be. I want them to be uncomfortable with the past so they can join us to change the future.
Kate Murphy is pastor at The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. This was first published in The Charlotte Observer.