A Camden Educator on Why His Students Crave the Truth
Teaching the truth equips young people with the knowledge of how we got here and empowers them to change the world.
Like many educators, I spent a portion of my summer break teaching students. In July, I was working with high-schoolers on crafting their personal statements for college admission and helping them develop research and study skills for success in their coursework. One morning, while teaching on the topic of note-taking from a scholarly text, I was paid a compliment by a student that crystalized the tension of what it means to teach the good, the bad and the ugly of U.S. history in the classroom in 2022.
I handed out the article “Fugitive Slaves in Mexico,” retrieved from The Journal of Negro History — the research journal founded in 1916 by famed Black scholar Carter G. Woodson. After my students concluded their reading, they shared with me what they had learned. Most of them weren’t aware there was an Underground Railroad from Texas into Mexico, or that Mexico abolished enslavement in 1829 — the impetus for enslaved Africans to escape Texas, a former territory of Mexico, in the first place. The students were all stunned that Texas’s commitment to maintaining enslavement led to its secession from Mexico and annexation into the United States.
After the discussion, I shared that had I been their history teacher, they would have learned that. A student looked at me and said, “Oh, so you’re that teacher.”
I answered: “Yes, I am that teacher.”
I answered with pride, understanding that as a Black teacher, I walk in the tradition of master teachers like Woodson, John Henrik Clarke, Lucy Craft Laney, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Anna Julia Cooper — Black educators who served on the front lines of educating Black children within an anti-Black society.
Yet I’m aware that my teaching in this vein may be untenable.
Ours is a society where white parents storm school boards while conservative politicians enact laws to ban books that teach critical race theory. But that label is a boogeyman, meant to enrage the mob and thus prevent students from learning that the United States is a white-settler colonial project with systemic racism at its roots.
If I weren’t teaching in Camden, New Jersey — a city whose students are majority Black and Latino — my job could very well be in jeopardy.
But that’s the thing. Teaching truth isn’t about pleasing adults; it’s about giving students what they need. I know that when I teach about enslavement in the Constitution or the resistance of enslaved Africans in the U.S. or the unfiltered radicalism of Dr. King, my students need what I’m teaching. They’ve told me so.
They share that they never learned the things I’ve taught them — that their previous history teachers didn’t teach them the truth. I believe them, because I said similar things when I learned the truth. Our shared experiences empower me to teach truth — history that rightly implicates the concept of whiteness as a criminal enterprise that carries out violence against Black people, Indigenous peoples, the Latino/a community, women, the poor, and the intersections of these, past and present.
As a result, my students have shared that they understand the course of our country better and how to navigate society — to make it better for their children and for all people. This is the power of teaching the truth: It equips young people with the knowledge of how we got here while empowering them with the skills to change our world, so we can all tell our children the story of how we got over.
Rann Miller is director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives and a social studies teacher for a charter school district in New Jersey. A freelance writer, he founded Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools, and is the author of Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids, coming in February 2023.
Published as “Teaching the Truth” in the September 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.