Waking up to teach the day after the presidential election of 2016 was one of the most surreal moments of my more than decade-long teaching career. The demographics of the high school where I was teaching four years ago were roughly 50 percent white and 50 percent Black, Indigenous, and students of color. That morning, some of the students were excited; others were visibly upset. And as they walked into class, I handed them a sheet of loose-leaf and asked them to jot down whatever thoughts they had about the election. There was no rubric.
Students eagerly took pen to paper. I noticed one student write something brief and put her pencil down as other students continued to write. Her paper read, “I want to be in this country because I love it. I don’t know if this country wants me back now though.” I’ll never forget those words or the emotions on her face. I still have all of their writings from that day.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has accused teachers, especially history teachers, as “indoctrinating” students to “hate America.” I joined four other state teachers of the year,* who all teach history, to set the record straight about what transpires in our classrooms.
In a somber back-to-school season gripped by the pandemic, President Donald Trump late last month announced a commission to promote a “patriotic education.” He provides a bleak picture of our nation’s classrooms, a radical wasteland where “left wing” teachers indoctrinate children to “hate America.” And despite a growing movement of educators calling for a more culturally diverse curriculum that acknowledges the impact of slavery and systemic racism in our country, Trump decries this push toward truth as “a form of child abuse.”
We, five of our nation’s teachers of the year, are deeply troubled by this.
A “patriotic education,” as we see it, is one where we embrace and value all students’ worth and dignity while creating spaces for them to consider the realities of our country, past and present, to build a better tomorrow. As teachers, we know that in our classrooms, we can hold our national victories, struggles, accomplishments, and missteps close while promising to fight together for a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people.” This is patriotism; this is American.
On June 5 of 2020, a few friends and I attended a Black Lives Matter rally right outside of Jackson Square, in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter. We were fortunate to rendezvous with some of my former students. At the rally, protesters silently sat along the Mississippi River to reflect on the recent killings of Black Americans at the hands of police. After reflection, many of us returned to Jackson Square, named after Andrew Jackson, and joined the calls to remove the iconic Andrew Jackson statue overlooking the square.
There we faced a small group of armed counterprotesters, around five or so, wearing bulletproof vests and ready to “defend” the statue. The protesters and counterprotesters angrily exchanged words, which seemed to eerily satisfy the counterprotesters. One of my former students, Leandre Shaw, decided to approach a counterprotester to engage in dialogue. During the conversation, the counterprotester told us he wanted to protect the statues and asked why we were so concerned with them. Aronisha Mickel, another former student, said she’s not just concerned with them; rather, she wants to create a better world for her future children to be safe. Her response caused him to pause.
June 19th was a day of remembrance in Louisiana, specifically in my home community of St. Bernard Parish, almost a century before Juneteenth. It was a day where people celebrated the life of Jean San Malo and what he came to symbolize – freedom and resistance.
In the late eighteenth century in Spanish Louisiana, Jean San Malo and his group of maroons roamed the marshes surrounding New Orleans. The word “maroon” derives from the Spanish word cimarrón, which roughly translates to “fugitive” or “runaway.” San Malo was one of Louisiana’s fiercest and most notable maroons. Little is known about his upbringing. Prior to mutinying, he belonged to a Swiss-born colonial official with a plantation along the German Coast, a region along the Mississippi River above New Orleans. After Malo’s escape, he utilized his carpentry skills to produce furniture to accumulate weapons and gunpowder. His alarming success gained him loyal supporters throughout the maroon community. He established his main camp in Bas du Fleuve, located in modern-day St. Bernard Parish along the banks of Lake Borgne. Bas du Fleuve and surrounding regions were notorious for marronage. The majority of maroons from the area hailed from St. Bernard Parish, considering its geographical features and proximity to New Orleans paved the way for large plantations.
There are quite a few speeches and letters circulating around the internet for the Class of 2020, understandably so. However, this particular one by Lina Abdellatif, a Chalmette High student, hits home and is more important than ever. Lina was one of the Valedictorians at Chalmette High, named Student of the Year, and a Posse scholarship recipient to the Notre Dame.
Lina dedicated her valedictorian speech by calling students to a greater meaning beyond themselves. She did this through one of my favorite historical songs – “Bella Ciao” – an anti-fascist Italian anthem. Coming from Italian immigrants and a legacy of family fighting Nazis during WWII, it struck a cord with me.
Unfortunately, Lina’s message only reached a small audience due to the pandemic. I wanted it to reach a wider audience because she deserves it, and we need to hear it. She granted me permission to post this moving and inspirational ballad.
Below is her address, unedited, for the Class of 2020.
El viernes por la tarde, algunos estudiantes de último año entraron a mi clase después de que sonó la última campana. Estaban molestos porque su viaje de senior a Disneyworld probablemente será cancelado. Me rompió el corazón de maestro al escuchar.
Porque esto es difícil. Se supone que este debería ser el año de ustedes. El año para tu fiesta de graduación, eventos deportivos, competencias de ánimo, viajes de seniors, clubes, y el resto de lo que el último año escolar tiene para ofrecer. Se supone que tú deberías ser el capitán de ese tal equipo, el oficial de ese tal club, o ese estudiante que quería estar con sus amigos por última vez antes de aventurarse en lo desconocido. Este era EL año en que toda tu educación se estaba acumulando. Pero te lo robaron debido a esta pandemia global.Continue reading “Una carta abierta a los estudiantes de último año de secundaria”
On Friday afternoon a few seniors came into my classroom after the last bell rang. They were concerned about prom and their senior trip. It broke my teacher heart to listen. As you’re reading this, you most likely have similar concerns.
This is supposed to be your year. The year for your senior prom, sporting events, cheer competitions, senior trips, clubs, and the rest of what senior year has to offer. You were supposed to be the captain of that team, the officer of that club, or that student who wanted to be with their friends one last year before venturing into the unknown. This was THE year that your entire schooling was building up to. But it was robbed from you because of this global pandemic.
Let’s be abundantly clear – you were robbed, and it’s unfair. If you’re upset, then you should embrace those feelings. Commiserate with one another. Some folks will downplay the situation because they won’t know what it feels like to have their senior year stripped at the last moment. Continue reading “An Open Letter to High School Seniors”
Greetings! I am honored to have been invited to give lectures to discuss my research on the St. Bernard Parish Massacre of 1868 as the 150th anniversary approaches. They are all free and open to the public.
1. Thursday, September 13, 6pm
The New Orleans Jazz Museum At The Old U.S. Mint
400 Esplanade Ave, New Orleans, LA 70116 Click here for more info
2. Monday, October 15, 7pm (come early for complimentary wine and cheese)
Nunez Community College
3710 Paris Rd, Chalmette, LA 70043 Click here for more info
3. Wednesday, November 14th, 6pm
3416, 820 St. Louis St, New Orleans, LA 70112 Click here for more info
Hope to see you there! Stay tuned for more information regarding the commemoration of the event.
The positive response to my book, The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre: Blood in the Cane Fields, from the local community has been unreal and humbling! There is a clear demand for this era in history. For those still interested in buying a copy and/or getting it signed, here are some upcoming book signings:
Hello all! As you may or may not have noticed, I have been on hiatus from this blog for almost two years. This is for a few reasons. First, I decided to go back to graduate school, which is undauntedly time consuming as I teach high school. However, the main reason is that I have a book deal from the History Press regarding the 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre, which was one of the topics of my earliest blogs (don’t judge my writing from that long ago, please).
Well, the book is complete and now available for pre-order via Amazon. It will be officially published on October 16, 2017. Please feel free to get a copy if you’re interested in Black history, Louisiana history, and/or Reconstruction. If not, this book may still appeal to you! I put a lot of time, dedication, and primary research into it.
More details to come for a book release party for those in the New Orleans area!
And hopefully I’m back to delivering content. Feel free to leave comments on where you think I should focus on for my first post back!
I’ve compiled a listicle of my favorite historical photos of New Orleans. Through its complex history, New Orleans experienced a series of issues: slavery, war, riots, segregation, hurricanes, etc. I stopped prior to 1980 to keep it as historical as possible. I kept it at 100 to keep it succinct, but there are many more that should belong here so feel free to add any of your favorite photos in the comments section.
On September 14, 1874, over 5,000 heavily armed members of the White League, a white supremacist paramilitary organization, mobilized to overthrow the Reconstruction government of Louisiana. Under the guidance of John McEnery, a Democrat upset at his recent loss for governorship, they stormed Canal Street to initiate the coup. There they clashed with the Metropolitan Police, a majority African-American force, and the state militia, comprised of ex-Confederates and Union soldiers, Irish and Italian immigrants, and African-Americans. The total force of those defending the city was an estimated 3,500. They were outmanned and outgunned.
In 1933, famed ethnomusicologist John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax pioneered on an arduous journey to capture the sounds of the American South. They wanted to find African-American folk songs in its purest form as close to the days of slavery as possible. Lomax believed prisons provided the best source as its walls created a filter to the perversions of popular music.
The Chicago Tribune published an infuriating piece by Kristen McQueary, who claimed a feeling of “envy” for the “upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.” This sensationalized article justifiably struck a nerve among Katrina victims. It presented itself at perhaps the worst time: at the near precipice of our ten year anniversary.
On a Sunday afternoon on June 24, 1973, around sixty patrons were drinking at the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans’ French Quarter. At 7:56pm, the buzzer that signaled a cab sounded. The man that opened the steel door was greeted by a hurling Molotov cocktail that quickly engulfed the staircase and spread in seconds. Thirty-two men were brutally murdered; most burned alive. It is the largest known massacre of gay people in our nation’s history.
A fascinating yet painful look at some of New Orleans’ iconic landmarks that did not endure the test of time. As Benny Grunch would say, they just “ain’t dere no more.”
1. First Saint Charles Hotel
The first Saint Charles Hotel was built in 1835. A traveling Brit called it the “finest piece of architecture in the New World.” It met its fate in an 1851 fire that burned many other historic structures to the ground as well. This 1847 photo is one of the only known surviving photos of the structure.
As the United States entered the 20th century, increasing population and industrialization led to a nationwide meat shortage. Moving west to acquire more land for grazing or hunting became a limited option as the frontier closed and buffalos were hunted into near extinction. In southern Louisiana, newly invasive water hyacinths, similar to water lilies, transported to New Orleans by Japanese tourists during the 1884 World’s Fair were creating massive ecological dilemmas. In 1910, an audacious plan was put forth to address both concerns: import hippopotamuses from Africa to the bayous of Louisiana to consume the water hyacinths and provide a tasty source of meat for a hungry nation.
New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral faced a myriad of obstacles through its circa 300 years of existence. It was first built in 1718, the same year the city was founded under French explorer and colonizer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. The Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 scorched the original structure, and a new structure was completed in 1794. Enlargement and reconstruction in 1850 eradicated much of the original edifice, giving the city its current building. In 1909, the Cathedral faced an uncharacteristic obstacle: nitroglycerin.
“A blow across the shins with a racket is permissible, and broken heads are not uncommon.”
The Choctaw Nation of the lower Mississippi River Valley was one of the most influential yet lesser-known groups of 18th century New Orleans. Since French involvement in the region, interactions between the groups were frequent. Native-American and African-American relations were also common considering French and subsequent Spanish law was more lenient than English law.
On December 11, 1941, days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Adolf Hitler addressed the Reichstag to declare war on the United States. Although American efforts to assist Great Britain were well underway, Hitler’s declaration officially brought the country into the European theatre. The United States was at war on both fronts.
By early 1942, the United States had drastically increased their naval presence in the Atlantic and presented a distinctive challenge to German U-boats who previously had patrolled with little resistance. This newfound challenge coerced U-boats to find less militarized areas to patrol and harass. The Nazis turned their attention the Gulf of Mexico. Heavy traffic from New Orleans and the consistent flow of oil from the region made the waters a prime target. The Gulf Coast was unprepared to defend against Nazi submarine attacks. The Nazis felt they could significantly undermine the American war effort if they could successfully disrupt the free flow of oil.
Despite common belief, the American Revolution was more than 13 colonies fighting an oppressive European force; it was a transatlantic conflict involving multiple countries and their colonies. Louisiana, then under the Spanish flag, waged impressive campaigns to attack British territories and undermine the British war effort.
Spain decided to assist the rebels because of their humiliating loss to Great Britain during the French and Indian War, which was the North American theater of the Seven Years War. In 1762, Spain offered to help France in exchange for all of the Louisiana territory west of the Mississippi River, including the city of New Orleans. However, Spain surrendered East and West Florida to Great Britain.
New Orleans’ once bustling Chinatown was one of the largest in the country, behind San Francisco and New York City. Due to numerous obstacles, ranging from stringent immigration policies to excessive demolition, Chinatown eventually faded from both modern maps and, for most residents, our collective memory. Tangible vestiges of this once active community are slim, yet its lore continues in New Orleans’ dynamic history.
The Civil War broke out in 1861. The Union captured New Orleans in April, 1862, saving the city from the destruction faced by other Southern cities. New Orleans remained an occupied city until the end of the war.
The word levee comes from the French verb lever, “to raise”, and was first used in New Orleans shortly after its foundation. As humanity’s battle with water continues, millions depend on them. Nowhere is this truer than the New Orleans region, where battling nature is second nature. Unfortunately, Louisiana levees in 1927 faced an atypical enemy; humanity.
After the United States took control of New Orleans via the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, thousands of Americans migrated there to seek better opportunities. Many of them moved into the emerging American sector of New Orleans as they did not mesh well with the already existing Creoles. The Creoles looked at them as barbaric, but noticed that those from Kentucky were the most boisterous. Creoles nicknamed them “Kaintock”, and the term eventually referred to all incoming Americans. The resentment was mutual. The Americans looked at the Creoles as snobbish and unwelcoming, and nicknamed them “crapaud”, meaning frog in French. The bitter contrast between the two led to an agreement to build a canal on a major thoroughfare dividing them. The canal was never built, but the street remained as Canal Street. The median in the middle was dubbed the “neutral ground”, and to this day the medians in the New Orleans area are called “neutral grounds”.