The times they are a’changing: Abolitionist teaching under attack

It would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. All these manly men of the right whimpering about books their kids are reading, whining about their free speech being violated while they cancel history, literature, and the arts. The McMinn County school board in Tennessee bans Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Texas representative Matt Kraus has a list of 850 books he wants banned. Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin has set up a “tip line” for reporting on teachers who bring up “divisive” ideas and Florida lawmakers are forwarding a bill to install cameras in the classroom to monitor teachers. White panic is taking hold because of the specter of Critical Race Theory and non-binary gender stories.

Since 2020, the struggle against white supremacy has won tremendous victories, as Black communities have demanded a reckoning with history and concrete steps to dismantle structural racism. Alabama activist attorney Bryan Stevenson explains, “We tolerate excessive punishment that very few societies tolerate. And that’s largely because we have been acculturated to accept extreme punishment, beginning with enslavement, beginning with lethal violence and lynchings. History will help us recognize that this stuff is connected.”

In education, not only is transformative reckoning occurring in the study of history, but the concept of “abolitionist” teaching is inspiring teachers across the country. This is modeled on the abolition movement in the 19th century that called for the dismantling of the entire edifice of slavery

One of the powerful advocates for a transformed curriculum is Akiea (Ki) Gross, an elementary school educator and abolitionist organizer. Their curriculum pedagogy, called Woke Kindergarten, has introduced affirmation and self-respect activities to help young people negotiate the challenges of our world. Woke Kindergarten is a creative approach, developed to address the way racist assumptions, and the prison industrial complex, is reinforced even in early childhood. It also addresses ways we can disrupt carceral logics by moving away from control, compliance, and punishment and towards safety, care, self-determination, and agency. Students learn the language of affirmation and empathy, develop a commitment to community that is not dominated by threats and punishment. As Ki says, “I create what I never had, what we don’t have, what I feel like kids, families and educators deserve.”

Recently, Ki Gross has come under sharp attack by the right, serving as a point of attack for Fox news, the Federalist, and others. Inevitably, this has led to personal attacks as trolls and violent racists bombard them with threats. At a minimum, it is crucial that all of us push back, support educators like Ki, support our local ethnic studies teacher, English teacher, social studies teacher. They are doing heroic work, just by going into schools and doing their jobs. Don’t let them be isolated or intimidated.

But remember this: These violent attacks, this attempt to legislate ignorance, are proof that our movement, that the transformative cultural upheaval of today, is powerful. We didn’t expect the racists to roll over and surrender, did we? Their frenzy is only evidence of how far we have come, as Jamelle Bouie points out. History moves forward in fits and starts, lurching forward and getting pushed back. We need to face these right-wing demagogues, as well as the parents and administrators who are complicit in spying and reporting on teachers, with confidence because there is no doubt that the future belongs to the righteous.

I am reminded of a similar moment of reaction and cultural upheaval that the country was going through. It was during the American war in Vietnam and massive, militant demonstrations were taking place. A political cartoon captured the reality. It depicted a middle class white family watching the TV news which is covering an anti-war demonstration. The newscaster is cursing these dang radicals and the father is screaming epithets at the TV. And the two kids, lying on the floor, are watching in rapt attention, wishing to join the uprising.

This is where we are today. These old reactionaries are never going to change. They will take their racist bile to their graves. They are terrified of their children, the next generation, embracing the truth. Remember that racism, and the construction of race, is a white problem. While we know that ethnic studies and true history are crucial correctives to the educational experience of BIPOC students, the ones who desperately need ethnic studies are white people. We are the sleepwalkers, considering the way things are, and our privilege, to be natural. We are the ones who need to radically change our perspective. This is what these dough-faced fools are terrified about. And they should be worried. Because they can’t legislate to block thinking. And they are losing.

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Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.