The long fight for anti-racist curriculum

This week the estate of Dr. Seuss announced it would stop publishing six of his books, including If I Ran The Zoo and To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, because of racist images and depictions they contain. The decision came as no surprise to those of us who have read some of these books out loud to our children lately, stammering through racist verses and hastily flipping past racist cartoons. Meanwhile I wrote a story this week updating the progress on anti-racist curriculum in Monroe County — with the context of some recent racist incidents in local schools, including an assignment where fourth-graders in Webster were asked offensive questions about slavery. I presented to and shared materials with the folks working on that curriculum and am excited to see the end result.

Clearly there is still work to be done to ensure that children aren’t consuming racist or biased materials, either at home or in the classroom. Contrary to popular belief, though, this struggle has a long history, including in Rochester. The first such case I found in my research was from 1951, when the local NAACP successfully petitioned for Little Black Sambo to be removed from city schools as well as the Rochester Public Library. Superintendent James Spinning said Sambo, a blackface character, was “sort of a hero to children,” but nonetheless acceded to the request.

Top: Little Black Sambo cover; bottom: Dr. Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo

The broader topic of culturally responsive curriculum, as we call it today, was first addressed systematically in 1964 when RCSD wrote “The Negro in American Life,” a curriculum supplement for eighth-grade English and social studies teachers. (Individual Black teachers and community leaders, in particular Bessie Hamm, had promoted Black history individually for many years before that.)

The language in the introduction is progressive even by today’s standards:

“In almost every phase of learning, the impact of what is probably the most significant issue in our country today, the Negro’s struggle for equality, has been muted or ignored. Heroes of eighth grade American history range from colonists to cowboys, but seldom does the Negro appear, except as the happy and child-like servant. … No young person preparing to take part in his country’s future can be considered educated without an understanding of the civil rights issue, its origins, and its by-products of fear, ignorance and prejudice.”

District and community leaders continued to stress the need for fair and accurate representation of Black history throughout the Civil Rights era and beyond. The FIGHT organization in 1967 called on RCSD to offer Swahili as a language option and said that “the contributions of Afro-American citizens to America’s growth should be an integral part of the social studies and history curriculum.”

The topic has come up regularly in the last 50 years — and, to be fair, much progress has been made. In 1964, for instance, RCSD administrators noted that many students were unfamiliar with Frederick Douglass, something that certainly is no longer true. The current curriculum writing project (as well as a parallel one sponsored by the Pathstone Foundation) is the most ambitious to date, both in the scope of what it covers and also the number of students who will be taught it. It certainly will not be the last word on the topic, though, and that is a good thing.

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