At age 20, I learned that I’d been duped by the middle and high schools I graduated from in Houston. Each year like clockwork during the month February, I sat in class and recited the same lines from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. Teachers facilitated the same Who’s Who of Famous African Americans–whether it be George Washington Carver (peanuts), Frederick Douglass (an abolitionist and ear to Abraham Lincoln), or Harriet Tubman (underground railroad). Different year, same lessons.
I joined the Army in 1988, after growing up in a predominately African American neighborhood. All my classmates were Black. I attended a middle school named after a Black man, Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History.” Woodson dedicated his career to the field of African American history and lobbied extensively to establish Black History Month as a nationwide institution. Yet I wasn’t taught about his historical impact on our nation in Houston public schools.
I graduated high school in 1986, at a school named after a white man and successful real estate developer, Evan E. Worthing. While lying on his deathbed, Worthing changed his will to state that African Americans would inherit his wealth. He gave his Negro tenants what he felt belonged to them—$1,350,000 of his $1,600,000 gross estate, to be placed in a trust fund for Negro college scholarships. This was not something I learned during my time attending my alma mater.
It was in Germany, while watching two older Black soldiers play a game of chess. I tried to insert myself in a philosophical debate on matters of the Black diaspora and my ignorance was blatantly exposed. One of the players paused during moves and informed me to go “read a book.”
The humiliation I suffered is commonplace for the thousands of children who grew up in public schools under the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Just as curriculums have glossed over Black history during the days of my youth; today, led by Gov. Gregg Abbott and Republican lawmakers, we find our state marginalizing and deteriorating the inclusion of people who look like me from being taught in our schools.
“I think critical race theory and the belief in critical race theory is creating racial disharmony in the United States,” Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands. Yet Toth refuses to acknowledge the numerous examples of Black voices being ignored or misrepresented throughout mainstream social studies classes in America. Has not this willful omission from Texas public education already created institutional separation?
Rather than push back against Abbott’s “critical race theory” bill (which Abbott purposely didn’t say the phrase), TEA chose to be cowardly and silent, and allowed the Black experience to become an incomplete, less than meaningful, shallow narrative footnote.
Texas students of all races will be denied knowledge and become neglected on historical, cultural, and intellectual contributions that have made, not only Texas, but also the nation, a more-perfect union.
As for the younger me, I went to the library and read a book. And another. And another. And another. I read more about the racial injustices that Black people endured—even those who wore the uniform to protect and defend America. I read about Black soldiers, upon returning home from World Wars I and II, being lynched for simply wearing the uniform. I read W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Soul of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time—all books which opened my aperture and deepened my understanding on the plight, resilience, and survival of African Americans in this country.
Imagine if I, as a student sitting in English, Social Studies, or American History classes, was exposed to such literature, how less ignorant I would have been to the value, beauty, and substance of our worth.
Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “The South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know.”
His words are ripe for students, parents, and educators to create a revolution against bills and laws that deprive minds of critical thinking on the history of race and racism in the state of Texas. Du Bois’ words are necessary for the Texas Education Agency to refocus and realize that all Texas students need to draw inspiration from Americans who have persevered the struggle of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era.
A decade ago, I was in Afghanistan covering the war and I couldn’t help but be thankful to grow up in a country where I had the freedom to read, learn, and pursue education. As I took photos of young Afghan boys and girls, I was overwhelmed with compassion for the little girls (and women) who were banned from schools and universities under Taliban rule. As a father of two daughters, I was fortunate that they could excel academically in schools—and read books about the rich history of African Americans.
Today, under the direction of Abbott and the Texas Republican Party, there are parallels between their “anti-Critical Race Theory” agenda and the Taliban draconian ideology of denying girls education. Both have created egregious policies and political action that creates an institutional culture of intolerance, division, distrust, and White supremacy—and this is not accidental. It is my hope that the Texas Education Agency wake up and recognize that Texans deserve better than the current ideas, principles, and beliefs about the true history of the Black experience in our state and the nation—so they don’t get a head start on ignorance like I did.
Donald Sparks is a retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major, who has accomplished many awards in journalism and photojournalism during his time in service as a Public Affairs senior enlisted leader. His military awards include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Medal, Army Meritorious Medal and the Purple Heart. He is a recipient of the Ancient Order of Saint Gabriel given to those rare individuals whose careers embody outstanding achievements and accomplishments in the spirit, dignity, and sense of sacrifice and commitment epitomized by a career that so singularly distinguishes the individual as a contributor to Public Affairs that they have few peers. He is a graduate of Evan E. Worthing HIgh School (Class of 1986) and University of Texas at El Paso (2013) where he earned a Masters of Leadership Studies.