Remember the good old days in elementary school on the playground chasing the cute boys (or girls)? Those days were so innocent. We were not much different from each other besides gender. We weren’t able to grasp the concept of race yet.
Then, one day, I realized that I was different. I was in the second grade and to celebrate Martin Luther King Day we learned about the civil rights movement. Afterwards, while sitting on the swings, my friends and I determined that I was white. We came to this conclusion after comparing my skin to our friend Shay Shay’s skin, which was black. I wasn’t as dark as her so by default, I was white.
Imagine how much more upset I was when I found out that I wasn’t white or black, but Asian, some form called Chinese. What the heck was Asian? Why weren’t Asians in my history book? Where did we come from? Space? As far as I was concerned, there were only two types of people that existed on Earth, blacks and whites. Oh, and a dying species that helped start Thanksgiving Day called Indians (later, I would find out that that there were also Indians from a place called India. Who would have thought?!).
The following years were spent learning about great Americans that built our country. They were great men like Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. But I could no longer relate to them. In fact, I felt less American when I finally found out in my history book that Chinese people came to the United States to work on the railroads and open laundry mats. We weren’t great explorers or social leaders. We didn’t have any holidays named after us. The U.S. government tried to exclude us from the country in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act. We must have done horrible things, I remember thinking.
“American history books contribute or play a role in shaping one’s racial and ethnic identity,” said Doug Chin, author of “Seattle’s International District: The Making of a pan-Asian Community.” “For instance, if one’s ethnic group is not mentioned in American history then that person may conclude that his or her group has no part in building America and therefore feel less American.”
One reason why there isn’t more inclusion of other groups’ histories in grammar school textbooks is because there are many versions of the same story and advocates have had a hard time agreeing on which version should be included, says Connie So, senior lecturer in American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington. Because of this absence, teachers also aren’t knowledgeable enough to teach these histories.
This is a great example of why diversity in the education system is a must. “I learned about Asian American history from my father. But sometimes I thought he was lying because his stories weren’t in my history book,” said So.
Similarly, I didn’t believe my fourth grade teacher when she told me that a slave invented the cotton gin. I had read that Eli Whitney was the American inventor that created the cotton gin, a mechanical device that removes the seeds from cotton gin and a key invention of the industrial revolution. I remember Mrs. Dawson vividly. She was a black, grandmother-looking lady. “Why would a white man create something that made work easier for his slaves?” she said to the class.
“The only person who found a need to invent such a tool was the black man who was tired of picking cotton.”
Mrs. Dawson taught us that just because it’s in a book, it’s not always the truth and to always question what is missing. I don’t know if anyone else was listening. But I remembered.
Prof. So said history books should at the very least include more detailed information about the Japanese Internment during World War II, considering post 911 social justice and political issues. “What’s also important is to examine how America acquired land. When it comes to social justice, ethnic history is party of American history,” said So.
If we did some of our research and matched what’s out there with what we learned when we were kids, we’d find out that history doesn’t happen so much in chronological order but simultaneously.
The Supreme Court ruled that schools could no longer remain segregated in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. That same year General Vo Nguyen Giap led a 57-day siege against a French garrison in northwestern Vietnam—which signaled the coming end of colonialism in the country. These are proven histories and shape our world today.
Other “alternative” accounts of history can also change the way we look at the world around us. In 1423, England was at war with France. Some argue that that same year, a Chinese admiral by the name of Zheng, finished his exploration of the coasts of Africa, South America and Australia and sailed into the Caribbean and the Sea of Cortez, off what is now Baja California, discovering the Americas 70 years before Christopher Columbus.
Like pieces of a puzzle, all these events make up our history. “We are so interrelated,” said So. Perhaps, if grade school textbooks allowed us to come to our own conclusions about history, rather than feed us with facts and dates, we’d have a better understanding of ourselves and of American history..