Yesterday, I had the opportunity to chat with Makya Renée Little, a member of the Virginia Commission on African-American History Education. The commission started last August 24, when “Governor Ralph Northam signed Executive Order Thirty Nine…charg[ing] the group with reviewing Virginia’s history standards, and the instructional practices, content, and resources currently used to teach African American history in the Commonwealth; and with examining and make recommendations on the professional development supports needed to equip all teachers for culturally competent instruction.” Here are highlights from our conversation, which was very interesting and informative. Thanks again to Makya Little for her time and also for her tremendous advocacy on this important issue! – Lowell
Q. How did you get involved with this important topic?
Little: “I mean…how much time do you have? It’s kind of a Forrest Gump type story…At the time that I really kind of started working on this, [my kids] were in fourth, fifth and sixth grades, and my youngest daughter was obviously the last one to do the Virginia studies SOL that they start in fourth grade…One particular day…my daughter gave me her study guide and I’m just reading and making sure that her response seems somewhat close to the answer that’s on the paper. And I get to this one question and it says, ‘what was the status of the Africans…and the answer, she said unknown, and that’s not true because African history is very predominant…when I was looking at the paper I said that’s not right…then I actually read the response on paper and it literally said the status of the early Africans is unknown, they were either slaves or servants. I got so angry, enraged, because…even if there are some details that you’re trying to get at, fourth graders are only going to remember the bottom line – unknown… So I said, okay, that’s it. As a mother of African-American children, it’s hard enough to deal with image issues – hair not being straight and feeling insecure about your beauty or trying to understand why you get in trouble more than Johnny and y’all did the same thing. And so I’m already trying to make sure that they don’t have those insecurities. For them to be learning in school that the status and the history of their people is unknown, it did something to me.”
Q. So then you dove into this?
Little: “So then I went to the school board meeting the next day to express my concerns about it and I told them I understand this is a Virginia state-level exam and so probably above your authority or whatever, but I’m not even asking you to do anything, just tell me who I need to talk to. So I ended up by way of a friend meeting Rep. Elijah Cummings. He was being interviewed by Donna Brazile, this was April of 2019. It was open for q and a. I went up and just basically told him about the encounters I had with my daughter’s study guide and that I kind of had this revelation…First, I want the study guide corrected. And then second, I want whatever underlying…information that they’re teaching to be corrected. Third, I remember being in school – and I went to Thomas Jefferson …and I said I remember learning European history, Asian history…I learned about Mayans and Incans, but “my choice to attend a historically black college or university led to my first opportunity to learn my own history.”
Q. That’s a really good point. I mean, it’s not just teaching African-American history incorrectly or disrespectfully or all of the above, but…what percentage of education in history or social studies or whatever in the schools is even focused at all on African-American anything – culture, history, anything?
Little: “Very small sliver…So, I told Rep. Cummings, I feel like this isn’t just a Virginia issue, I feel like this is a national issue. I said, how could we go about making this a national effort, a national conversation? And his response to me was basically by doing what you did. And he said, I keep trying to tell you young folks you all have more power than you realize. And he said it’s really incumbent upon us who have been blessed with an education to take a hold of the issue and run with it. And he said because you feel so strongly about this, you basically have everything you need to succeed…He had his staff reach out to the governor’s office, and I ended up meeting with Holly Coy, who was the Deputy Secretary of Education. And his team even helped me, because I said I don’t do politics, how should I prepare for this meeting? And they gave me some some pointers and I went in with my talking points outlined and my asks outlined. And Holly Coy said, can I keep this? I said, yes of course you can! I said I want to help be a part of whatever the solution is, but you know these things have to change – and quickly.
So I think maybe two months or so…we were kind of staying engaged and then I saw an article in the Washington Post that kind of mentioned the governor was basically committing to reviewing African-American history and how it’s taught in public schools, and I got excited because the administrative was exceedingly responsive, just as Rep. Cummings advised. And in August, they called me and asked me if I would accept an appointment to the commission.”
Q. That’s so cool. So you got pissed off about something – and rightfully so! – you started to ask some questions, and then you took some action and a few months later you’re on this commission which is studying how to revamp how Virginia teaches history. Very, very impressive.
Little: “History, but also things we don’t talk about but we need to. First of all, the curriculum really softballs slavery; I think they call it more like ‘forced work program,’ indentured servants, or something like that.”
Q. They actually don’t say the word slavery in our history books today? This sounds like something out of the 1950s or whatever. It’s still that bad now?
Little: “The word racism isn’t in any of our materials. Things like institutional racism, things like capitalism…colonization…there’s just some things where it’s like, ok, we may not talk about that because it’s uncomfortable, but we’re doing a disservice to our kids.”
Q. I mean, there are tons of uncomfortable things in American history. Do they talk about any of that other stuff, or is it just they don’t talk about racism and African-American slavery?
Little: “So it’s not that they don’t talk about it, but the way that they present it is almost like in a, you know, we came to this land to make this beautiful home for everyone, and we had this relationship with the Indigenous people..we had a trading relationship…it really tries to like whitewash and kind of clean and pretty up what really was a horrible thing.”
Q. So basically, these books are misinforming kids – future citizens, future adults and future voters. So this commission has a pretty broad mandate or is it fairly narrow? How would you describe the mandate of the commission and what you’re supposed to be doing here?
Little: “I would say it’s somewhat narrow, because we definitely started going down that rabbit hole if you will – what about Indigenous Peoples’ history and what about this history? …We were really ready to blow the whole thing up. And so that’s why we went with more of the thematic approach, where it’s like okay, if we talk about capitalism, if we talk about institutional racism, then these other ethnic groups’ histories can be woven into that framework.
Q. Are you finding that’s working out pretty well so far, approaching it that way?
Little: “Yes, it really structures it to where now we can build upon that vs. trying to go in and line-item edit every part of the curriculum, of the standards. Now we can build this framework of, ok, as long as we weave these things throughout each grade level and each expectation, now you can talk more broadly from a historical standpoint.”
Q. Taking a step back a little bit, how did it get to this point? Why are these books even in the school system at all the way they’re written and the way history is being presented? Who approved this in the first place? I mean, why do we even have this? Why wasn’t it done right in the first place?
Little: “I’m glad you asked that. I actually did my own research after my initial engagement with the Department of Education in those three months of waiting. I purchased these Virginia textbooks from the 1950s on Amazon……textbooks that were done really after desegregation…It was essentially Virginia’s way of rebelling….that’s when people started using the Confederate flag, monuments went up…the part of how do we teach our kids, who the north was and what they did to us and how they told us how to manage our slaves and do this and so it was like a brainwashing if you will of children…that slavery was a good thing and they were happy slaves…And so what happened from my perspective is instead of throwing the whole thing in the trash, they started making edits and cleaning it up kind of piece by piece.”
Q. I’m very skeptical of that, because you’re basically building on a completely rotten foundation. I mean, if this foundation’s rotten and the structure of it is rotten and everything, just tear it down and seriously just start all over again. And in this case it sounds like they should have just started all over again, and like you said at the beginning just blow it up and start it all over again. So you’re saying they basically just started making changes to what you described from the 1950s, which sounds absolutely appalling, and then they just started trying to fix it or something? So how did that work out?
Little: “Really not too well.”
Q. So you’re saying today it’s basically the result of years and years of starting from the 1960s or whatever year and just continually making a little tweak here and a change there. Is that where we’re at right now?
Little: “Yes. Over time what they do is they review the Virginia standards of learning every seven years…and that’s when they typically make these edits. And I wasn’t too happy about having to wait another two years. And so I actually wrote an op-ed earlier this month where I kind of called on the school board to not wait; as soon as we finish our work, I move that we implement. And so [Secretary of Education Atif Qarni], I gave him a heads up that I was writing it, and he said I actually agree with that, so thank you for giving me the heads up, say what you have to say. So that was one of my asks. My other ask was that instead of putting so much effort into professional development courses and training for current history teachers, I said I think this would actually be a great opportunity to hire more African-American teachers, specifically who studied African-American history in college.”
Q. Yeah, absolutely; it’s a big problem that we don’t have that already…Yeah, definitely, hire more African-Americans who maybe graduated from historically black colleges and universities, who studied this stuff…so that’s great. So is there sentiment on the commission to just say, you know, we need to start all over again because this is all just built on a rotten foundation, and there’s no way you can fix it? Or is it that you all decided this is kind of what we have and let’s just make the best of it, try to fix it? Which approach do you think is best, is it somewhere in the middle of that?
Little: “I think we’re somewhere in the middle where, again, I think the commission has been restricted a little bit, where we’re kind of making recommendations with guidance. And the guidance that we’re getting from the Department of Education, in my opinion, is more like tell us what you think and then let us work on how to actually make it happen. And so when we say, we think you should blow it up, they’re like ok, well, we can’t blow it up. But I think that they were open and have been open to our thematic approach. So it’s still not 100% let’s blow it up the way we wanted to. But it’s trying to thread this needle of how do we maximize our recommendation…
Q. I just feel like why keep something that’s flawed. Why can’t they just quote blow it up and build something really good, excellent, top-notch, and just get it right for once? Why can’t they do that? Is it an issue of budget? Is it an issue of training of teachers? Would it require massive expenditure of funds to get all these new materials or something? I’m just kind of puzzled why not get it right and and throw the old, incorrect textbooks out and get the correct ones in here ASAP?
Little: “That’s a great question. I could only speculate. But I feel like it would be kind of like a massive undertaking budgetwise, training-wise, and we’re not really positioned to make that level of a commitment, especially with the administration kind of more toward the end of their term.”
Q. And maybe budget issues related to COVID-19. But yeah, It just baffles me why we would keep going with stuff that was basically built upon the totally wrong propaganda and just garbage that was spewed out to students in the 1950s – just stop, we know it’s wrong. But that’s a broader problem…I guess your commission can’t fix everything…it would be nice. So anyway, now you have until what, September 1st to come up with recommendations?
Little: “So we’re actually moving to have recommendations somewhat finalized more around August, and that way it can go through whatever rounds of review that need to happen before we turn it over to the governor in September…”
Q. And then what happens after that?
Little: “Then it gets to the implementation phase. And if they accept the recommendations, they will have to be incorporated into the new standards. And that’s why I wrote the op-ed that I wrote, to say let’s do that now. I think there’s room in the the rules to make an exception and do an out-of-cycle update. And so [Secretary of Education Atif Qarni] pretty much assured me that they’re not going to sit on [this]. So whatever we do come up with will be accepted and implemented.”
Q. So the time frame then I guess could be that, maybe next spring or something we might start seeing some changes in how history is taught?
Little: “The cool thing is that one of the things that the Virginia Department of Education was tasked with doing in addition to the commission and its charge, was to establish an online African-American history studies course. So that is actually supposed to launch this fall. It’s elective. We were a little concerned about marketing for the course because, you know, students usually make their schedules in the spring. And so knowing that it wasn’t marketed to schools we were kind of concerned about enrollment. And also at that time it was only a half credit…we kind of pushed back on that and they increased it to a full credit hour.”
Q. So this will be is this like an AP class or is it just like a regular class that anyone can take?
Little: “Yeah, regular class anyone can take. We did make the case that there also needs to be an AP version of it, again for the credit incentive. Yes they should and will feel compelled to learn without that, but why would you have an AP U.S. history and not also offer an AP African-American history, especially since these courses do exist in college so you can absolutely get college credit.”
Q. That’s very good to hear. So basically this can start getting rolled out in the fall and then keep building more and more, hopefully, in the spring and beyond. So what are some of the main recommendations so far?
Little: “So, definitely a thematic approach. We also talked about having a pilot if you will, of having some of the instructors teach it this fall. And I brought up my recommendation for hiring African-American studies professionals. I think the kind of somewhat compromise that we started to get to with Dr. Lane was to at least hire a few to serve as almost like mentors to these new teachers that are going to have to teach this subject matter that they may not be as familiar with. So kind of have them at consultants for now. I’ve actually used my personal network and reached out to a few HBCU presidents and professionals at Howard, Virginia State and Norfolk State and FAMU and just asked, hey who do you know that might be interested in this kind of opportunity?”
Q. Wow, that’s really impressive initiative on your part, nice job! So, do you have more public meetings? I saw on the schedule it sounded looked like there were some meetings that might have been postponed or canceled because of the pandemic.
Little: “A key recommendation that we had – and I was actually really involved in the planning of the community listening sessions – was that we needed to expand our ideas by including the community. And I had done all this research on how the SOLs are developed and how they have this this small team with maybe one teacher and the other members have to be selected and added, and it almost seems like they approve this content in a back room somewhere. So I don’t want, even though there are 34 of us, I don’t want it to seem like we still came up with this new curriculum in a back room. So I think by having community, well-publicized, regional listening sessions, we can if nothing else give everyone a voice in what this should look like. And so, they were very supportive of that, and we planned to have five listening sessions. But COVID cut us off after three.”
Q. So are those being somehow reformulated or rescheduled or are you just not going to have them?
Little: “Yeah, the other ones we’re probably not going to have. But what we always do, at the end of our regularly scheduled commission meetings, we always have room for citizen comments. The panels were great because it was a conversation vs. just reading a statement.”
Q. So so have you gotten a lot of good of helpful feedback from the public? Have you taken some of what the public has suggested?
Little: “So, a listening session we had at Norfolk State, that one was a student panel, and the students were amazing. They were very candid and direct and it was multiracial, so just the perspective of African-American students feeling like they didn’t learn their own history, and white or Hispanic students feeling like they were robbed of the full picture of American history because this important information was left out.…”
Q. Why do you think this commission happened when it did? This started before George Floyd and some of the events of what just happened in the last you know a couple months. Northam’s executive order was way before that, so why do you think this is happening now?
Little: “I believe the Loudoun County Chapter of the NAACP met with Gov. Northam with a list of things they would like to see happen…and one of them was related to education. At the same time, you had people like me…and thanks to the guidance of Elijah Cummings’ staff I feel like I was able to not just say, ‘this is what I would like to see change, and this is how we might go about changing it….From the first time I met [Secretary of Education Atif] Qarni he’s always been super responsive…he’s always like ‘did they get back to you, did they answer your question’?” So I feel like the combination of his willingness to take my thoughts forward and the engagement of the other members of the commission encouraged the Governor to sign the Executive Order.
As far as recent events, I feel the George Floyd video, in combination with the Central Park bird watcher…Breonna Taylor…Ahmaud Arbery…I think it’s lead our nation to reach a fever pitch where you can’t say it’s us anymore. Because I feel like that’s what society has done for so long, is basically just told African Americans you just have to work harder, you just need to be more respectful, you just need to do this, you just need to do that… and a guy can’t even bird watch and ask you to leash your dog without you feeling like you should threaten his life by calling the cops…and then you see the impact of that behavior with someone intentionally snuffing his life out…So it’s kind of like, now do you see…this is a situation that people couldn’t ignore anymore. And so I feel like recent events have underscored the importance of the Commission’s work and the impact it will have on society as a whole.
I’m grateful for the Northam administration being willing to not just listen to members of the community, but to act with haste in making the Commonwealth a more inclusive place to live and raise children. Although I will never be able to repay Rep. Cummings and his staff for their mentorship, my personal goals are to pay it forward by speaking up—not just for my children, but for all children of the Commonwealth.”