The Fight Over How to Teach America’s Past Is Itself a Test
Kalela Williams, the writer and educator behind Black History Maven, on why we “can’t afford to be shy in talking about the past.”
Benjamin Franklin didn’t coin the phrase that nothing can be certain but death and taxes. Other writers said it first. But out of anyone, he, as a founding father, as an enslaver, and, later, as the president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, might well have thought to add a third item to that list: history.
History is certain. It happened, and it’s happening right now.
I traffic in this ongoing reel of history. As the owner of Black History Maven, a company that offers historical tours and talks, I discuss it in nuance. As a historical interpreter for museums and other institutions, I don clothing that embodies 18th-century American life: a hand-sewn gown, a petticoat, and all the accoutrements, sharing my knowledge of this revolutionary era with others.
As an educator for the organization Mighty Writers, I teach kids to be inspired by ancestry and memory as they pen prose or poetry. And when I wear my writer’s hat, history weighs heavily on my fictional worlds. It’s part of my livelihood. So I literally can’t afford to be shy in talking about the past.
But none of us can. And yet what we often want from history seems to be a children’s book, one with a tidy beginning, middle and end rather than the erratic arcs and zigzags of reality’s through line.
Whether I’ve got on denim from H&M or 18th-century-replica linen, my historical work often leads me to people who are looking for heroes’ journeys instead of lives that were crammed with the messiness and complexities of being human. They’re often craving feel-good tales of honor and integrity — and just that, only that. But I don’t have easy stories.
There are no easy stories.
That’s okay. There don’t need to be. Rather than dreaming up a fable, we can play the ball of history as it lies, so that the truth of our American past might sink in. From a practical standpoint, this means teaching young people how to think critically, and about the importance of seeing and understanding nuance. Kids and teens might find that the voices of those who lived before us, as recorded in diaries and personal letters, are as fascinating as policy documents and famous speeches.
Moreover, teaching history is realizing that there is nothing to fear, full stop. Yes, there is pain in history — in particular, perhaps, in Black U.S. and Caribbean history. That doesn’t cast shame on anyone living except those who cling to the bigotry of others long gone. The payoff is real. Black history should inspire us all, illuminating how generations before us have drawn upon resilience, community and family. It lays out, in shining detail, how we might all claim a better world.
What is certain is that hiding our country’s past changes nothing. And that history continues with every passing day. Today’s fight over teaching will itself be tomorrow’s lesson. Will we pass this crucial test, one graded by the minds of new generations?
Or will we fail?
Kalela Williams is a writer and educator living in South Philadelphia. She explores diverse histories through her company Black History Maven and serves as director of writing for Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia youth organization. Her YA novel, The Tangleroot Papers, comes out from Feiwel & Friends in winter 2024.
Published as “History Is Our Judge” in the September 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.