By Riley Selig-Addiss, MPP Candidate, Sanford School of Public Policy
On a day dedicated to illuminating the past in the hopes of improving our future, Dr. Jelani Cobb’s keynote speech intuitively addressed the importance of “Sankofa,” looking backwards to move forward. Dr. Cobb, who is currently the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University and a staff writer for the New Yorker, began his speech by asserting that the United States is in “a moment of democratic crisis” because we have refused to acknowledge the atrocities of our past.
Pulling on his experience as a historian, journalist, and father, Dr. Cobb discussed the many ways in which America has tried to avoid its own history. The address covered moments in American history that have been defined by slavery and systemic racism, as well as the inability of our nation to grapple with these issues. As Dr. Cobb put it, “America likes it’s history like a resume… A litany of our virtues” without any of the mistakes. Unfortunately, by removing the warts in our history from national narratives, we have eliminated the ability of history to be a “study of human behavior” from which we can learn and grow as a society.
Unfortunately, by removing the warts in our history from national narratives, we have eliminated the ability of history to be a “study of human behavior” from which we can learn and grow as a society.
While Dr. Cobb spent a large portion of his address providing specific examples from the past, the speech, must like the rest of the conference, ultimately used what we know about our history to focus on the present.
In the same year that the Color of Education has decided to dedicate its conference to the exploration of our past, there are individuals and interest groups across the country advocating for bans on Critical Race Theory (CRT). Dr. Cobb is skeptical that any elementary school teachers are actually citing Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, or Richard Delgado in their classrooms, but, as someone who has studied history his whole life, he is quite adamant that this has nothing to do with theory.
Instead, Dr. Cobb is quite concerned that the attempts to ban CRT within classrooms are actually focused on banning the history of black people from our school systems. That, more broadly, these attempts to obscure the faults in our history will only throw us into further crisis by raising another generation of Americans that have failed to receive the “immunity” needed to avoid repeating past “dis-virtuous decisions.”
Dr. Cobb finished his address focusing on the famous civil rights line “we shall overcome,” which was said as a mantra during the civil rights era. While Dr. Cobb is concerned by the political and educational landscape in America, he also knows that we’ve been in this situation many times before. An accurate portrayal of our history shows us the terrible things that Americans have done, but also the incredible feats that people have accomplished in difficult times. Hopefully, with the work of organizations such as those in attendance at the 2022 Color of Education Summit, we can overcome the political and individual tensions that arise when trying to address our history to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to learn and understand the past, present, and future potential of our country.