Commentary: Silence is complicity – on (not) teaching Black history in Maine

Florida’s recent moves restricting Black history instruction and whitewashing slavery are alarming. The state is using the guise of “anti-wokeness” to justify its extreme measures. These baseless laws are certainly worthy of scrutiny, but, as a professor of teacher education, I am more worried about Maine than Florida.

The lessons of Maine’s Black history would likely include the eviction of the residents of Malaga Island, to whom a memorial at Pineland Cemetery in New Gloucester was dedicated in 2017. Beginning in 1911, the state began forcibly evicting the Black, white and mixed-race people who lived on the island off the coast of Phippsburg, and by 1912, the approximately 40-member fishing community had been entirely removed. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer, File

My concern may seem unjustified because Maine has made progress in teaching minoritized history. Twenty-two years ago, the Wabanaki Studies Law was passed. And as recently as 2021, the Act to Integrate African American Studies became law. Together, these laws require that Indigenous and Black history be taught in schools.

Rightfully, Maine’s laws should be hailed as a beacon of light during a time when suppressing the histories of the marginalized is becoming normalized. As another school year gets underway, my concern does not stem from discourse, but with actions.

I regularly communicate with educators from across the state in my role. This past spring a student teacher told me that no Black history was taught in their social studies placement, even during February – Black History Month. One teacher shared with me that she wanted to teach Black history but did not know how to do so. Meanwhile, a retired educator still volunteers in her local school district, fearful that Black history lessons will not be taught if she does not do it. These stories are just a sampling of what I’ve heard, and I fear they are representative of the majority of Maine classrooms.

ACLU Maine shares my concern, finding that the Wabanaki Studies Law is still not “meaningfully enforced across the state.”  House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross recently expressed similar sentiments at a Juneteenth event when a citizen asked about Black history lessons on the Maine Department of Education’s learning platform. Speaker Talbot Ross underscored that the intention was to make Black history “a normal part of everyone’s learning,” not a nonobligatory elective.

I believe the will to be inclusive exists in Maine. Many educators recognize and hunger for racially diverse histories in our K-12 classrooms. I have been involved with both the Portland Public Schools’ Africana Diaspora curriculum development team and the state Department of Education’s Social Studies Steering Committee – both of which are actively trying to improve the situation. But I also know that high-level rhetoric alone is likely to suffer the same outcomes as the laws already passed.

Local control is the centerpiece of Maine politics, which means there is little possibility of a statewide mandate to ensure inclusive instruction. With no levers of accountability, each individual educator must choose to extend their teaching beyond the normal (white) canon. Ninety-five percent of Maine’s educators are white and have not been required to take racially diverse history courses themselves. Even if the desire exists, the reality is that they cannot teach what they do not know.

Florida is operating in a state of extremism. It is easy for folks in Maine to clutch their liberal pearls. But if Maine is yielding the same results in the classroom, then the inaction of integrating history classes with the meaningful contributions and legacies of diverse populations is complicity.

As we enter into a new school year, I urge all Mainers to move beyond the status quo of being what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the white moderate,” who prefers the absence of tension rather than the presence of justice. Instead, seek out local and state school officials and underscore the importance of diversifying the curriculum. Ask if educators are being provided professional development to further their knowledge. Inquire if all children are taught the richly diverse history of America. Most importantly, in the spirit of education in a democratic society, further your own understanding of all history so we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, like getting caught up in the sensationalism of other states, when there is much work to be done in Maine.

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