One day last September, when 10-year-old Iris Haq Lukolyo logged on to Zoom school, her social studies teacher told the class that they would spend the day learning about the roles of the Founding Fathers in building America.
But Iris — a fifth-grader at Glenn York Elementary School in Pearland, Tex. — was puzzled: She didn’t know how her class could have a conversation about the origins of America without talking about the contributions of enslaved Black people, whose unpaid labor was integral to shaping the United States as a leading global economy.
Enslaved Black people also helped build national infrastructure that still generates wealth today, including government buildings such as the U.S. Capitol and the White House, as first lady Michelle Obama noted in 2016 during her speech at the Democratic National Convention. And many of the Founding Fathers — including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton — were enslavers.
Iris thought a crucial part of the narrative was missing from the lesson plan. So she decided to speak up.
“When I came off of mute, I said, ‘But didn’t the slaves build America?’” Iris said. “And [my teacher] said, ‘No, we don’t talk about that in this classroom.’”
The principal of Glenn York Elementary, Lisa Hicks, said the details of Iris’s account were “definitely not entirely correct” but declined to provide further information.
As the only Black student in the class, Iris was crushed by the interaction and turned her camera off to cry, she said.
Before she spoke up, she had been “definitely scared” to do so, she said. And “after [the teacher] shot me down, I felt even worse — I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I shouldn’t have said that.’”
Iris soon channeled her feelings into action, penning an essay about her experience and the importance of teaching accurate and critical American history in schools.
A couple of months later, the essay — titled, “Muted: Fifth Grade Conversations About Slavery” — was published in Skipping Stones, a national youth literary magazine. And when Iris’s mom, Heather Haq, shared it on Twitter last month, it went viral. The essay echoes many educators’ and historians’ arguments about the importance of teaching kids about the realities of slavery and racism in America — and in writing it, Iris joined a recent wave of other Americans, young and old, who have advocated for more accurate and equitable interpretations of history in schools.
Iris’s mother raised her concerns with the teacher a few weeks after the incident, when she saw the effect it was having on Iris, according to an email she sent the teacher, a White woman. School administrators declined to comment.
“Part of what happened was that Iris got really turned off from learning about social studies,” said Haq, who is mixed race. “She felt like, ‘It doesn’t speak to the history that I’m interested in learning or what I know to be true.”
That response to being shut down is natural — particularly for a child who experiences multiple forms of discrimination, as Black girls do on the bases of both their race and gender, according to Nicole Christian-Brathwaite, a Boston-based psychiatrist.
“All forms of racism — whether it be explicit or implicit — are traumatic, and the trauma can have long-term negative effects and is cumulative,” said Christian-Brathwaite, who is Black.
Last year, before the incident in her social studies class, Iris recorded a video for Christian-Brathwaite to use when she educates teachers on the effects of racism in education. In the video, Iris discusses her experiences of racism with other students at the school, claiming that teachers have a habit of sweeping those incidents under the rug.
Iris’s teacher eventually apologized for making her feel hurt, according to Iris and her mother. But that felt inadequate to Iris, who thought that slavery shouldn’t have been moved to another day’s lesson, she said.
“The message we got was that slavery wasn’t on the lesson plan that day,” Haq said.
This approach is a common impulse among teachers, according to Shaunna Harrington, an assistant teaching professor at Northeastern University, who teaches a graduate education class called Teaching History.
“They look at racism as a topic, rather than looking at history through a racial lens,” said Harrington, who is White.
Instead, she said, educators can incorporate historiography — the study of how history is written — into teaching history by asking students, “Who’s not being included in this history, and why aren’t those voices included?”
According to Christian-Brathwaite, the teacher could have also taken the approach of affirming the validity of Iris’s comment and addressing when the class would learn about slavery in a more in-depth way. She added that the combination of negative media depictions of Black people and the discipline disparities facing Black girls in schools makes it vital for teachers to support them, along with other students of color.
For Iris, writing about her experience offered a way for her to process it, she said, adding that she never imagined her work would eventually be published.
But after family and friends implored Iris and her mother to publish the writing, the pair eventually submitted it to Skipping Stones. In the essay, Iris implores readers to get comfortable with being uncomfortable when learning about American history.
“If you are so proud of America’s history, look at the downsides, too,” she writes. “Own it just like how you own how we won the revolutionary war.”
For teachers, Iris’s message is twofold: “Don’t shut down or mute conversations about slavery,” and “please teach American history in a way that shows the complex and, yes, racist history of our country,” she writes.
“Students deserve to learn the ugly sides of our history so we won’t repeat the same mistakes, and also to learn about amazing Black historical figures beyond Rosa [Parks], MLK, and Harriet [Tubman],” she continues. “These changes will make me feel seen and comfortable as a Black child in a classroom in America.”
Iris’s message will soon travel through at least one university classroom, too: Harrington plans to use it in her Teaching History class this semester at Northeastern, to prompt her graduate students to think about the impacts of the exchange on both Iris and her teacher.
In recent years, debates have raged across the country — sparked, in part, by the Black Lives Matter protests — about how students learn about history, slavery and racism in schools. Like Iris and her mother, some students and parents have taken matters into their own hands to ensure their education is accurate and equitable.
Chauncia Boyd Rogers, a mother in Texas, started her own tradition when she realized her 5-year-old daughter, Ava, was not learning about Black History Month in her school. In February 2015, she dressed up her daughter as different Black female trailblazers every day of the month. Other parents have since followed Boyd Rogers’s lead, posting photos to social media of their own children dressed as different Black historical figures throughout the month of February.
But pushback on school curriculums has not been met without controversy.
Earlier this month, North Carolina’s state school board approved standards requiring social studies teachers to discuss racism — which was accompanied by the objections of some school board members, who derided the guidelines as “anti-American.”
And following the August 2019 publication of the New York Times’s award-winning 1619 Project — a series of essays and other works that examine the legacies of American slavery, with a curriculum made in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center — some Republican lawmakers and historians argued that the material should not be taught in schools and that it distorts history. Many historians have praised the 1619 Project for centering the roles of white supremacy in American history. Its creator, New York Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, won a Pulitzer Prize for her introductory essay to the project.
Despite Iris’s flare for history and writing, she doesn’t see either as a future career path, she said. Instead, she hopes to become a fashion designer — a dream inspired by memories of her earlier childhood years spent in Uganda, where she wore traditional colorful prints without being looked at twice.
“I want to normalize African prints being in modern clothing designs, because that was something I was always embarrassed about [here], wearing prints from Uganda, that it was so different [from American clothing],” she said. “But that’s the best part about it: that it’s different.”