What being Lincoln in a school play taught me about efforts to whitewash Black children in schooling
Schools pipeline Black folks into assimilation from childhood, preventing us from ever questioning an existence outside of appeasement.
By George Johnson
Anti-Blackness and the “alternative facts” about it did not start when Donald Trump became the 45th President of their United States. For Black children in America, we have only known a history rooted in false narratives, erasure, and the omission of any of our history unless it is first routed through a lens of whiteness.
K-12 school systems continue to pipeline Black folks into assimilation from childhood, preventing many of us from ever questioning an existence outside of appeasing white society.
I was 9-years-old when I got the lead in the school play. The title was something like “This Land is Your Land”, and, of course, it included the students of my primarily Black school playing historical figures like George Washington, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. As the lead, I got to play the person who I was told to be the greatest hero to African Americans, our 16th president, Mr. Abraham Lincoln.
At that time, the only thing I knew of Abraham Lincoln was that he created the Emancipation Proclamation which ended slavery. Known for his honesty, he was to be held in the highest regard, as he made it possible for me to attend school with white kids 130 years later.
I was proud. To be Black and play the man who saved my ancestors was an honor. I remember putting on a suit made of the American flag, a fake beard and a top hat, and going on stage in front of the entire school to recite a poem about liberty and the rights of all people. We all ended by singing “This Land is Your Land”, and I took a bow to a standing ovation.
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…” – Abraham Lincoln
My childhood version of Blackness was sold to me through a lens of whiteness. That lens forced me to suppress my true self throughout my K-12 learning experience, and even into college.
I remember the looks I got from white students in Catholic school for having braids. The assumptions that because I was from an urban city I must have been from the projects made me want to cut my hair so that I could fit in. My fight became to convince white people “we aren’t all from the hood,” separating myself from my actual skinfolk just for white acceptance.
I was first in line to yell “Bury the N-Word!”, fooled into believing it would make us all more tolerant of one another. “Y’all Blacks need to stop killing each other if we want white people to respect us,” because in my mind Black on Black crime needed to end in order for white folks to stop killing us.
Respectable George M. Johnson eventually died too, as their murders and the countless that continue became the daily reminder that at no time in America has the negro ever been seen as respectable. I almost bought into the hype of the American dream, the house, picket fence, dog and 2.3 kids, only to realize that this dream was never meant to be in color. I was still praising the white man I played on stage for my salvation, because I was forever indebted.
K-12 is where it all starts for Black children. It is a form of survival of the fittest, with those who are able to make it through the hoops they make us jump through become tokenized after simply trying to achieve equality. Those of us who “made it” were what most Black kids should be, and for those who didn’t make it through those hoops, the school to prison pipeline was there to ensure they never got any kind of education at all, trading in their report cards for orange jumpsuits. But our Blackness was being dehumanized all the same.
Absent the full dismantling of the K-12 education system, it is our duty to protect our children’s Blackness as they navigate through it. No child should have to see himself murdered on screen everyday to realize he is enough.
Mastering the parts conveniently left out of the history books is critical alongside learning to code switch and get good grades if children are to remember who they actually are along the way.
Our history has only been told through a white lens, without acknowledging the work Black folks have been doing for centuries to save ourselves. We must be willing to unlearn this false history in exchange for a Blackness fully encompassing of the ancestors missing in the margins of the pages.
George M. Johnson is a Black Queer Journalist and the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He writes for EBONY, TheGrio, Teen Vogue, NBC News, Black Youth Project and several other national publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram