Windows and Mirrors - Cotton - Florence Sprague - May/June 2022
There are concepts that I can hear explained and accept as true, but that I do not fully understand how to apply correctly and consistently in practice. Take physics. I memorized theorems and principles and plugged-in numbers well enough for high school physics, but the concepts never came naturally to me.
That is why I am seeking your help. Not with physics. With curriculum violence. One definition, from Curriculum Violence: America’s New Civil Rights Issue, uses this term to encompass, “the deliberate manipulation of academic programming in a manner that ignores or compromises the intellectual and psychological well-being of learners.” (Read about this book at http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume16/ej64/ej64r7/.) Stephanie Jones, writing in “Ending Curriculum Violence” (https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/spring-2020/ending-curriculum-violence) posits that the negative impact does not require “deliberate” action. She states that, “curriculum violence occurs when educators and curriculum writers have constructed a set of lessons that damage or otherwise adversely affect students intellectually and emotionally.”
My musings on this concept began with a snippet in the news about a family that was upset that middle school students were presented with cotton plants as part of a history assignment. The parents felt that the cotton plant was triggering trauma for Black students (https://abcnews.go.com/US/washington-family-claims-middle-school-students-asked-clean/story?id=78086469). A little searching found that this was not a unique assignment, though the details of how the cotton was presented varied (see, e.g., https://www.arlnow.com/2019/05/16/planting-of-cotton-at-arlington-elementary-school-prompts-discussion/). We cannot know the intentions of the teachers, but at minimum the verbiage and presentation were insensitive. As I first read of these, I feared that I could have made a similar mistake.
That meant more research, which was when I found Jones’ article in the online education magazine Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance). She recalled a similar instance in her own childhood education, and gave me the term curriculum violence in which to categorize it. Jones has created her own database of such troubling incidents (https://www.facebook.com/mappingracialtrauma/). I can definitely see how the manner in which a topic is taught could be hurtful and harmful to youth, but I struggle with applying the abstract concept to all cotton plants in all situations. Are the plants always off-limits? Was it the manner of presentation? Was it that the teacher was white? Was it the age of the students? Are the distraught families okay with the discussion of cotton plantation life? Too many details elude me and the nuances are many and still murky to me. It feels like this could be a doorway to a deeper grasp of an important element in more equitable education. I want to understand this better.
Learning for Justice also offered me another example of the misuse of cotton that feels clearer to me (https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/when-decor-is-more-than-decor by Cory Collins). In the first example in this article a university president serves collard greens and macaroni and cheese to Black students around a table decorated with a centerpiece containing cotton stalks. When confronted by offended students, he did not immediately apologize, but defended his choice of décor.
Collins wrote, “In culturally responsive teaching, in history instruction and in critical literacy studies, a common axiom applies: Consider the context. The history. The power dynamics. The biases held by the narrator. The stories left off the page.” Understanding objections, “requires unpacking why, for many Black people and people of color, raw cotton is a symbol of racial terror...Time and time again, people who hold social power quell the voices of those who hold less, dismissing their message as political correctness and blaming them for taking offense rather than asking, ‘Why?’”
Who do I ask when I am not a party to the story?
It is crucial that we teach history accurately, not in a sanitized version. (Read one Black student’s perspective on this at https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/spring-2022/a-students-take-on-sugarcoated-history?utm_source=Learning+for+Justice&utm_campaign=ef394994e1-Newsletter+4-26-2022&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_a8cea027c3-ef394994e1-83239303.) One challenge seems to be in helping white educators speak about the ugly parts of our national history in respectful ways. Another comes from the muddying of these waters by the angry outrage of white parents in a number of states seeking to protect their children from negative feelings, using this protectiveness to seek to justify the dilution of history lessons.
Students Black and white also need to be guided in thinking about themselves in contemporary terms, responsible for their own behavior today, while accurately informed of past.
Paraphrasing H. Adam Harris—we always need harm reduction, harm prevention, and harm repair. I have made some progress in thinking about this complex topic. Do you know of readings, analogies, or insights to help me go further?