Detroit is Trashing Black History — Literally


Residents of a Detroit -area school district have exploded in protests over the discarding of a historic book collection containing over 10,000 black history volumes, along with films, videos, and other artifacts. Highland Park resident Paul Lee, a local historian who helped assemble the collection, discovered a small portion of the volumes in a dumpster outside of the Highland Park Renaissance Academy. Emergency Manager Donald Weatherspoon took responsibility for the incident and claimed that the collection was thrown away by mistake, but that the district cannot afford to preserve it. Andre Davis, vice president and secretary of the Highland Park Renaissance Academy Board of Directors, has resigned in protest of the Emergency Manager's leadership. 

"To say he's not in the business of storing books and libraries isn't that what education is supposed to be about — books and knowledge?" Davis said.

Lee mentioned that the district began building this collection after the civil rights movement, after demands by activists for the inclusion of black history studies in school curricula — especially in communities like Highland Park, with an over 93% African-American population. Weatherspoon has said that the books with historical value would be donated to a museum, but unfortunately, much of the collection has already been lost to the dumpster.

Fellow school Board of Directors member, Marcia Cotton, however, took a more dismissive approach towards the protests: "I would very much like to get above the fray of the controversy and rather discuss solutions to the looming debt crisis facing the school district, the decline in school enrollment and city population, and how best we can work with our city officials and provide a greater quality of life for our residents and quality education in a safe environment for our children. We can't solve 21st century problems with 20th century tactics."

While the dismissal of "20th century tactics" is an obvious cheap shot against the protestors — a misguided one at that, considering how many major protests are currently being held around the world — it reflects the devaluation of American history rampant in our education system today. Last week, I wrote about how historical illiteracy is threatening our democracy internally, and that we could no longer afford the costs of forgetting our national history. What I only subtly implied in that article, I'll make explicit now: our national history is fundamentally intertwined with "black", "Native American", "women's," "Hispanic," "immigrant," and "LGBT" histories. These do not exist as mere qualifiers on some independent dominant narrative; they are inextricably part of our national history because they contextualize our current landscape. And they are not to be relegated to the margins of our history textbooks, or even worse, our dumpsters.

What happened at Highland Park was not trivial, and the items lost were not inconsequential relics: they were American historical artifacts. It's sad that school board members are the ones who need to be reminded of this. So while some may dismiss 20th century tactics (otherwise known as the freedom of assembly), Citizens for Highland Park Public Schools will continue to protest until something is done to restore their library. As district parent Roxy Moore noted, "The kids need their history and to learn about people way back then and up until now. I'm glad — they're protesting for a purpose."