On Colonial Fairs and 'De-Colonizing' American History in Elementary School

The Netherlands, the small European country I was born in, was once an enormous colonial power. We occupied and ruled parts of North and South America, Africa and Asia: areas and countries that are now called New York, Brazil, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Indonesia. We brought the first African slaves to North America. In the course of time we were kicked out of almost all of these countries and the last big land we gave up - willingly, almost eagerly - was Suriname in 1975. Traditional colonialism is behind us.

When I moved 20 years ago to the States I didn't realize it was a colony, albeit it free from the original colonizers, the Brits, the Dutch, the French and the Spaniards. But the U.S. is a colony where the colonizers were nót kicked out: they stayed. I am not sure if many U.S. citizens would define their country as such, but that insight dawned on me when my American children went to school and started history education last year.

We attend a pretty liberal secular private school in Brooklyn, NY, and third grade is -- like in many other New York schools -- devoted to the history of New Amsterdam. The kids role-play Dutch colonizers who cross the Atlantic to start a new life in the New World. That sounds like fun, if it were not that my adopted kids are African Americans: their forefathers and mothers crossed the Atlantic in very different circumstances. I kept silent to my daughter about my reservations to not to spoil the fun of a nine-year-old in a group of 21 more nine-year-olds. I was horrified when she was chosen to play Director-General Willem Kieft (1597-1647), one of the most vicious Dutch officials, responsible for one of the first brutal colonial wars against Native Americans, the Lenape. And kept quiet.

The New Amsterdam project was put in perspective and was preceded by a project around those slaughtered and later displaced people, the Lenape. Their culture was researched and exhibited and eventually celebrated in a class party open for the parents. I joined of course, played the proud father of his smart daughter, but was taken aback by the fact that the teachers and some of the children were dressed up as 'Indians', not as Lenape, but as generic, or better, stereotypical, 'Disney' styled Indians. The history of a genocide nicely dressed up and culturally appropriated is not exactly the kind of history that can help a child's realistic understanding of the how the US came about. I know, only very, very few schools in the US do any better with Native American history. The argument that this dark, cruel and complicated history can't be told to 9 year olds, without damaging their tender souls, counts only for white kids, Native American children know that story and carry that scar from day one.

This year, fourth grade, the colonial history will be played out again in a so-called Colonial Fair. It is a common tradition in elementary schools all over the country to organize such fairs: our school is in no way an exception and is even forward leaning. In our colonial fair the children do not only impersonate trades and functions, but they will also role-play in presentations with inclusion of voices of free slaves, abolitionists and Native Americans. It shows the school's sincere anti-colonial good will, but is it unfair to say that the main narrative stays within the context of colonialism? Is it unfair to say that that very narrative still excludes Black and Native people and exclude their own long, independent stories and marginalizing them by starting their histories when the world became white? That it uses their voices as add-on's, not as central voices, comparable to and of the same value as white voices, but as secondary voices, which react on the main white voices? Colonialism refers not only neutrally to a historical period, but signifies also for my kids and their peers genocide and slavery.

In a discussion with the school about these issues the leadership referred to Howard Zinn's left leaning A People's History of the United States as the source for the curriculum. That classic that favors the history of the people over the history of institutions, great individuals and nations, starts indeed with the plight of the aboriginals in chapter one and with the plight of the African slaves in chapter two. But this book starts as well with 1492, implying that Native Americans and African Americans begin their history when they are confronted with white Europeans, leaving their own histories in single paragraphs, pages, chapters. The problem with Zinn's book might be that he works with people within the context of the United States as a nation, a nation born out of Western European colonialism, instead of the history of a continent on which late in its history several nations formed, one of them the US.

The relative exclusion of African Americans and Native Americans in the colonial curriculum of so many schools in the U.S., even in its mild liberal form, has strange effects. When I talked about this problem with black parents in and out of our school, they all suggested that they were teaching their kids their own history at home. That means that for black kids there are two histories: an exclusive official school and an inclusive informal home history. And that happens not only in New York, it is common practice. The mother of West Coast comedian W. Kamau Bell for example, 'taught him black history at home because it wasn't being taught in school.'

We don't have as far as I know Native American kids in our school, but the Shawnee-Cherokee journalist and writer Trace L. Henz wrote me, asked about her education: "I learned Native history at the kitchen table in South Dakota, years later [than school age] of course. It is said that about age 10 Native students lose interest in white man education and version of history and turn away." This all means that official American history is by non-white people not really taken seriously, just accepted, and very seldom openly contested. This leaves white educators and white parents with the illusion that we all seem to agree on this common narrative.

Another even more disturbing effect of the exclusive and uncontested story of the birth and the growth of our nation is not only that the non-white outsiders might feel as not fully respected, as not being fully part of the nation, but that the white insiders keep owning this narrative and sometimes 'beautify' it into mythologies like the white myths of American 'exceptionalism' or 'equal opportunities for all'. Or, as we saw again in its most horrible form in Charleston, 'white supremacy'.

It is time that white educators take the responsibility to rethink the way they teach history, to understand that the official history as taught in their elementary schools still shows its colonial roots and excludes non-white students, and finally that the current curriculum adds to the problems in the U.S. instead of overcoming them. If we want to be a -- school -- community, we need a communal history, a real and 'decolonized' history.

Republished from the Daily Kos