We celebrated Black History Month in the Virginia General Assembly as we always do, with a series of speeches on the floor. Both sides of the aisle participated.
I spoke as the month wound down about a number of “firsts.” Black men and women who were the first to accomplish a feat of one sort or another: Thurgood Marshall, Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson, Kamala Harris, and several others. It is a long and — happily — growing list. Indeed, I added a reference to how we were on the cusp of having the first Black woman nominated for the Supreme Court. It happened four days later.
These historic “firsts” shine a bright, joyful light on the occasion. But each one also forces us to ask ourselves: “what took so long?”
Last Friday Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s superintendent of public instruction made good on Youngkin’s campaign promise to purge Virginia’s education system of “divisive concepts.” And as I pondered what he has in mind for our students, I thought of the debate we had in the General Assembly not so long ago about our Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. We cut back on the number of SOLs because of a broad, bipartisan consensus that we don’t want our kids to just be test-takers. We don’t want our teachers to “teach to the test.” We don’t want our SOLs to simply measure how well our kids can memorize facts. No, we want our kids to be inquisitive. To become critical thinkers. Problem solvers.
And that requires questions — questions such as “why?” And “what took so long?”
The new Virginia of Glenn Youngkin will have lessons like this one in our high school US history classrooms:
Teacher: In September 1963, four black students in Huntsville, Alabama, entered the Fifth Avenue school to become the first children to desegregate schools in that town and the entire state. The first student to take that step was Sonnie Hereford IV, who was the first Black student to enroll in a public school in the state of Alabama.
Teacher: What do you mean, why? Just write it down.
Student: Why hadn’t any Black kids been to public school in Alabama before that?
Teacher: I can’t tell you.
Teacher: Because I might get in trouble.
Teacher: Because someone is worried that if I told you, it might make you feel bad.
Teacher: I can’t tell you.
Teacher: Because telling you might make you ask more questions. And you might feel uncomfortable thinking about, um, well, why Black kids had never attended Alabama Public schools before September 1963. Please just stop asking questions and write it down.
Student: Ok. I’ll just Google it later on this phone my parents gave me. That’s how I find out all the other stuff my parents won’t tell me …
The governor glibly claims that he is not trying to change history, hide our history, or keep teachers from teaching all our history. But if that is so, don’t we have to engage our kids, and let them explore the inevitable questions that we want them to have?
When we teach students about our history, we — and they — come face-to-face with the uncomfortable question of why. Historical facts like the events of September 1963 in Alabama — which the Governor claims he is not trying to hide — are historical markers of our successes, and our failures. We cannot teach, we should not teach, only half the story.
It’s important that our kids ask, and learn: “why?”
(Sullivan is a member of the House of Delegates representing parts of Arlington and Fairfax. He is a Democrat.)