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Jonathan Norton Schools Us On How Racial Violence Gets Taught

reginacutRegina Washington directs Denise Lee and Ebony Marshall Oliver (l to r) in a rehearsal of Homeschooled at the African-American Repertory Theatre. All photos by Jerome Weeks.

Should schools teach American history – even its uglier aspects, like racial violence? Or should young children be taught about lynching and segregation at home? And when? As part of KERA’s American Graduate initiative, Jerome Weeks reports the African-American Repertory Theatre is premiering a new play by a Dallas writer that finds no easy answers.

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Playwright Jonathan Norton remembers his first-grade teacher in Dallas splitting the class into two groups. The teacher announced that two hundred years ago, this group – she pointed to the white students — would have owned this group – and she pointed to the black students.

“It was how she began to explain to us about the history of slavery,” Norton says. “And I know, looking back on it, it sounds, like, really? That’s … questionable. But then, even at that early age, I remember being angry at my parents, wondering why they had never told me any of this.”

Regina Washington is the director of African-American Repertory Theatre, which is premiering Norton’s new play, called Homeschooled (it’s one of the new plays supported by the Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund). Washington says her childhood introduction to the history of racial violence was almost the exact opposite of Norton’s. Her parents were very involved in her and her sisters’ education. She learned about lynching from them, she says. She certainly didn’t get it in school.

“Part of our history,” she says, “didn’t make it into the history books in the schools that I went to. It’s something that they’re not getting in the traditional schools, so homeschooling allows you to broach that subject.”

Initially, Norton (below) heard about African-American homeschoolers from an NPR story several years ago — and he was attracted to the topic solely because of the opportunities it provided for creating a variety of female roles. He actually knew very little about the subject.

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“Whenever I thought of homeschoolers,” he recalls, “I always thought of really, ultra-religious white people who lived out –” he laughs – “somewhere out in the country. I never really thought of African-American families.”

The fact is the number of black homeschoolers remains tiny. The first-ever study of African-American homeschoolers was finally launched — last year. One reason the numbers remain small: So much of the civil rights movement was devoted to desegregating American schools. Having fought so long and hard to get into them, African-Americans may feel it’s akin to a betrayal of the movement to give up on them now.

The best estimates put their numbers around one percent of the more than 2 million American children who are homeschooled. Those numbers do seem to be growing, though. And they’re growing for the same reasons other groups keep their children out of public schools: suburban flight from big cities, fear for the children’s safety, disappointment with the schools’ performance.

Norton’s play touches on these issues. But added to such concerns is the way many American school systems deal with – or avoid dealing with – such topics as slavery or segregation. They water down America’s racial history out of fear of igniting controversy with parents or racial discord in the student body — or political pressures. Three years ago, the Texas Board of Education considered a proposal to remove all references in history textbooks to the ‘slave trade.’ The new, approved term would be the ‘Atlantic triangle trade.’ After a public outcry, the proposal did not pass.

But in Norton’s play, the black homeschoolers have taken control of their children’s history education — only to find the same problem public schools do: How much do we tell our children? And when?

In this exchange from Homeschooled, one mother, played by Eleanor Threatt Hardy, confronts another, played by Ebony Marshall Oliver, about what was taught that day:

Hardy: My eight-year-old daughter learned two new words today: lynching and castration. How does this happen? This is so unacceptable.

Oliver: Michaela heard the word ‘lynched.’ I don’t know where she got it from, but she asked me what it meant and how to spell it.

Hardy: What the hell were you thinking? And not just castration — but castration in that particular context.

Oliver: That particular context? It’s part of our history!

Norton says he understands both sides – the side that says, This is American history that our children need to know — even just for their own safety. But he also understands the side that says, So much of this is painful and humiliating. And she’s only 8 years old. Besides, who wants to be defined by the worst aspects of our racial experience? America is the land of self-definition, of second chances. We had slavery, now we have a black president. Why can’t we move on?

But Norton says, while he wrote Homeschooled, he was struck by how the issues kept coming back – this time, because of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

“It was interesting when the verdict came down, that was the first conversation I would hear, over and over again: What do I tell my child? What do I tell my child?