The Truth will Build a Better Future
By Deborah Opramolla
Historical opinions change, historical facts do not. Many of us learned about Harriet Tubman in school. We were taught that she was an enslaved woman on a plantation in Maryland. She successfully freed herself from her masters by using the Underground Railroad to get to Pennsylvania. Tubman then returned to Maryland to rescue other members of her family. Over the next 15 years, Tubman used the Underground Railroad to help conduct over 300 people to freedom in the North Canadian territory.
Harriet Tubman was also the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the Civil War. She guided 300 free African soldiers on three separate gun boats to liberate more than 700 enslaved Africans in South Carolina in what became known as the Combahee River Raid.
What many are not taught is that this courageous woman experienced a disability – a seizure disorder brought about by a severe blow to the head when she was 12 years old.
Last year, the “divisive concepts bill” was passed into law. This vaguely written law has prohibited schools and public entities from teaching that one race, gender, mental or physical disability is inherently superior or inferior to people of another race, gender, disability, etc. It bans the teaching that a person is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive consciously or unconsciously.” The NH Department of Education (DOE) Commissioner has created a link on the DOE website inviting people to report teachers they think have violated the law. This action has caused fear among educators who previously taught historical facts. Teachers can be reported by parents and can lose their jobs and education credentials.
American history is complex. It is a collective of diverse achievements and innovations from a wide range of cultures and perspectives including those of Blacks, Indigenous people, and people of color. American history also contains the cruelties and mistakes we should never repeat.
I was raised surrounded by books and opportunities. Through this exposure I learned about great people – past and present – of different races, cultures, and abilities that represent American history. As a result, this Black child saw faces who looked like me, as well as faces who didn’t. People becoming who they wanted to be. My parents often said you can be and do anything you choose to be. This mantra, along with my education, taught me to embrace equity, inclusion, and facts.
As I raised my children, I began looking at their textbooks. I realized important historical facts were omitted or not fully covered. The textbooks covered primarily white men and a few women. My children studied New Hampshire history, yet never learned that New Hampshire was a slave state with Portsmouth as its busy slave port. During Black History month they learned a watered-down version of the teachings of Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, along with a few others. People who experienced a disability were rarely mentioned at all.
As parents, some of whom have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), we cry out for inclusion and equity in education. To achieve this equity, we must allow educators to teach historical fact.
We must stop assuming our children are too fragile, or will feel uncomfortable, or will be told that they are racist if we discuss inclusion and equity. Instead, we must help students of all races, gender, and abilities to understand that healing from the past, and having an honest, equitable education, allows them to embrace America’s mistakes. They need to believe that they, too, can become the next Harriet Tubman.
Deborah Opramolla is a court-appointed Educational Surrogate Parent who assures that children in foster care experiencing a disability have an appropriate Individualized Education Plan. She is a former oncologist who studied medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver.