“The reality is that you have to know your history in order to chart your future.”
— Keisha Lance Bottoms, the 60th Mayor of the City of Atlanta
Black scholar and founder of what is now known as Black History Month Carter G. Woodson, once said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose their inspiration which comes from teaching biography and history.”
The art of teaching is meant to be transformative and reciprocated. Through the transformation of teaching, students’ heart strings are pulled by reality as they learn both the beautiful and ugly parts of history. In my fifth grade social studies classroom, my mind flourished and thoughts become idolized into the deepest meaning. The curriculum of that classroom taught me that the color of the skin that lays upon my body does not define how far my intellect can reach.
This classroom provided my foundation in stability, the strength in my strive, the essence of my Blackness, and the importance of understanding the history that was stripped away from our people. History is not just a page in a book stuck in the back of the classroom, it is reality.
However, the new critical race theory laws making their way through statehouses across the country appear designed to strip Black children of having the chance to become free within their education. The new bill passed in the Georgia legislature and signed into law last month by Governor Brian Kemp bans “divisive concepts” which include claims that the U.S. is “fundamentally or systematically racist,” that any people are “inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” and that no one “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race.”
Bills using identical language have been proposed in dozens of states, backed by the Center for Renewing America, a think tank led by former Trump administration officials. When Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida signed the Stop WOKE Act on April 22, he said the following, “We believe in education, not indoctrination. We believe an important component of freedom in the state of Florida is the freedom from having oppressive ideologies imposed upon you without your consent.”
As a VOX ATL journalist, I had the great privilege to interview former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, on the impact of critical race theory through the lens of a politician, former prosecutor, magistrate judge, and as a Black mother. For this article, VOX ATL also interviewed a Fulton County educator who teaches eighth grade. [Editor’s Note: Due to the risks educators currently face speaking out publicly on a politically charged new law that will impact teaching across Georgia, VOX ATL is withholding this person’s identity].
VOX ATL: What is your understanding of critical race theory?
Keisha Lance Bottoms: Critical race theory teaches the history of race in America. Specifically, the origins of our country, how we were created, history of slavery, and movements that have shaped who we are as people. As well as, critical race theory examines culture: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Georgia Educator: My understanding of critical race theory is I don’t know why we are using the word theory. To include the word theory, it suggests that the reality of America history isn’t factual. Therefore, critical race theory is the factual history of America being taught to make people realize the impact of what happened in the past and today to people of color.
VOX ATL: Many parents and right wing politicians believe that critical race theory is destructive in today’s society. Why do you think that critical race theory is now viewed this way within the United States public school system?
Keisha Lance Bottoms: It really goes back to the effort to distort history in necessary conversations. We’ve seen it in conversations like critical race theory, when crucial historical components get weaponized. In many ways, not only does this shame people, but it enrages people into believing that we can’t talk about these things. Because by talking about them we are condemning history. The reality is that you have to know your history in order to chart your future. The goal is to move forward with good conscience in working together to build a better country. Critical race theory has been unfairly weaponized, especially coming out of 2020 with problems with race in this country. It is extremely important that people understand what that history, racism, and discrimination is rooted in because we have an entire new generation that is experiencing the challenges. However, if we aren’t all educated about how we got here, then we can’t understand the emotions that we see bubbling to the surface.
Georgia Educator: People are against it because it shames white people. The government is very concerned with how critical race theory makes white people feel. As an educator, I am concerned about all of my students. Though the question is, have you ever seen any politicians worry about just how Black students feel the same way they assert about white students? I never once heard one of them say “We are concerned about how Black students feel in the education system.” It’s important for Black students to understand and know their history. How do white students and people become better if they don’t learn to have empathy for Black history in order to change what the future holds for America. However, if we stay ignorant, nothing changes.
VOX ATL: Why do you think critical race theory is a political issue right now?
Keisha Lance Bottoms: Critical race theory is not rooted in condemnation, but it’s rooted in education. This is about educating people on history, but in politics it’s not focused on what the true issues that are being faced.
VOX ATL: As a teacher, how will critical race theory impact your classroom?
Georgia Educator: At the end of the day, I believe that I have a role to teach a true American history to my students in order to educate them properly. If that one day gets me fired because they want me to teach something else, then so be it.
VOX ATL: As a mother of Black scholars who go to school in Georgia’s educational system, how do you think your children will be impacted by Georgia’s new legislation involving the teaching of critical race theory?
Keisha Lance Bottoms: When I was younger, I attended Atlanta public schools primarily composed of African American students, Douglass High School. I graduated from high school with a clear understanding of who I was, what my history was, and how I came to be. My concern for students across Georgia is that they will not have that same understanding and same level of discussion of how we all come to exist in this country. Beyond critical race theory, it will put strong parameters on discussions about race, which are dangerous. History isn’t always pretty, such as what is happening in Ukraine. The reality is slavery was a part of this country’s history and is the foundation of who we are as a country. To not allow educators to have open discussions in their classrooms does a disservice to students across our state and can have generational repercussions because they didn’t have the benefit of understanding the racial dynamics of who we are.