"Celebrating" Confederate History Month in Schools

Kimberly Seals Allers

Photo By: Chandra Lanier
Recently, Bob McDonnell, the governor of Virginia issued a proclamation marking April as Confederate History Month. That decision sparked a flurry of media coverage and outrage and it was viewed as disrespectful to African Americans.

I'm all about celebrating history. And can even stomach the parts that I don't like. But it always surprises and disheartens me to see people make light of nearly 400 years of systemic oppression.  

Even worse, a few years ago, I found myself in the middle of my own Confederate brouhaha over a field day event at my daughter's school, of all places.

The headmaster of her mostly white, private school was retiring, and he was an avid Civil War buff. There were several events planned throughout the school year to honor his tenure and service to the school.

I attended most and did my working-mom-with-a-one-hour-commute best to be supportive. Toward the end of the school year, the faculty and PTA announced that the annual field day event, would have a Civil War theme with the students, even the kindergartners, playing either as a Confederate or soldier in the Union Army. Seriously?  

This is where things went too far.

I really couldn't see my five-year old African American daughter playing on the Confederate team. And I thought it was extremely insensitive and disrespectful to the less than 10 African American children in the whole K-8 school to have them play games under the banner of a group that wanted their ancestors to remain enslaved.

Some people may take lightly what the Confederacy stood for, but I don't think educators should be on that list. I arranged a meeting with the headmaster.

I calmly expressed my concern over the field day theme and stated that as the school strives to give students "teachable moments," I was concerned about the lesson they would get from playing games as Confederates.  I also reminded him that the Civil War was a war to maintain slavery -- a system that denied African Americans their human rights. Is this really the right backdrop for relay races and kick ball?

He said the war was over state rights.

Yes, I said, a state's right to keep slaves. 

He said I was being overly sensitive and looking too deeply into it.

Really? Seems like somebody didn't think deeply enough, I said. The painful scar of slavery still lingers in this country. And the confederate flag has long been a divisive symbol.

At the end of the extremely frustrating conversation, it was clear I was getting nowhere. I respectfully let him know that my daughter would not be attending school that day to participate in the disgraceful field day. He just smiled and said that was fine.

I walked out of that office feeling voiceless and invisible, and left it alone.

Ever since then, I've regretted not going one step further. I'm a journalist, for crying out loud, who could have summoned three newspapers and a television station before I left the school parking lot. But I didn't.

After working so hard to try to "fit in" to the school culture, the other moms, the PTA, and the board, I chose not to fight that battle, especially because of my daughter. She was already feeling uncomfortable fielding question after question about why her thick, curly hair was braided in corn rows. It's another one of those Black mom things, that not everyone will understand. The kind of trade-offs that often frustrate me.

Although my child was getting an excellent education, it was clear on that day, that the headmaster didn't care about all of the students (that was her last year there). And that's the problem with Governor Bob McDonnell. While throwing a political bone to the Sons of Confederate Vets, he forgot that he represents all Virginians -- even the African American ones.

In the end, the governor was pressured to restate his proclamation and acknowledge the ugly stain of slavery in his comments. I'm just glad to see that he wasn't able to get away with that kind of disrespect.  

And I hope that headmaster was watching.

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