The People We Are Supposed to Be

I am struck by the pictures I’ve seen on the news. I am struck by the faces I see lit by the torches of hate the night before a young woman’s life was taken in an act of terror.

They are young faces. They are not our country’s past. They are our present. They are a new generation that has learned to hate. This is not who we are supposed to be.

Once again our hearts are broken for the families of the victims of such hate. This time our thoughts and prayers are sent to Charlottesville. This time, it was not young Dylan Roof executing nine black worshipers at a Bible class in Charleston. This time, it is young James Fields ramming his car into a crowd of people standing up for racial justice. This time it is the death of Heather Heyer and the wounding of dozens more.

The voices of hate are disturbingly loud and incredibly close. They have literally wrapped themselves in their chosen symbols: the Confederate battle flag; neo-Nazi tattoos and uniforms; a reverence for the generals of the Confederacy who fought against the United States for the rights of states to be free to enslave black people. The protection of the monuments to these generals has nothing to do with protecting history. These are not rallies of historians.

But they do know this history. These generals are their heroes precisely because they fought to protect the institution of slavery. The rally flags weren’t subtle. “Loyal White Knights of the KKK”, read many professionally-printed banners. Hundreds carried torches onto the grounds of the University of Virginia in a night rally filled with fire and hateful speech. The choking dust of the history they kick up is of lynchings and Jim Crow and night terrors of bonfires. It is the dark history of slavery and soul crushing segregation and legal injustice against communities of people of color; religious communities; immigrant communities; women. This is the “great” past they long for. A time when people knew their places.

Families and educators will struggle to find ways to talk with children and students of all ages about this, and it won’t be easy. But it must be done if history is not to repeat itself.

Do not shy away from talking about this terrible topic with the young, I beg you. There is, perhaps, nothing harder than a conversation on race. But do it, because how we feel about race; how we react to racism informs how we feel about and react to all other forms of bias and prejudice. Children of all races, religions, all gender attractions and gender identities, of all cultures and social classes must have a safe space to speak and ask questions and wonder and think and be angry and be comforted.

It’s not important that we, as adults, know all the answers. It’s important that we let them ask all the questions and explore the complexity of our human family. And it’s important that children know that there is right and there is wrong.

There are not two sides to racism. Hate is wrong. Terror and intimidation are wrong. It’s important that we call racism and racial terrorism by its name. This is not about an honest disagreement between two sides. The poisonous ideology that one race or culture is superior to another race or culture is the antithesis to our country’s ideals of freedom and justice for all.

I never taught my 6th graders that they lived in a perfect country. They knew both our heroic and our horrific moments. But I taught them that regardless of where our leaders and laws might have historically failed, we could be proud of our country because we, as a nation, always knew who we were supposed to be. We knew what ideals we were supposed to believe in. Freedom. Justice. For All. For All. These were the words that were supposed to define us and those worthy of being our heroes.

I am so proud of the heroic counter-protesters in Charlottesville who showed up and spoke up for those ideals, knowing that they were putting themselves in harm’s way. I grieve for those who were lost and wounded having to fight this old, bloody war yet again. But fight we will. Stand up fearlessly and let everyone know whose side you’re on. Let them know why. Let them see your face in the light of truth. Show the world who we are supposed to be.


For parents and educators:

I have found wisdom in many sources over the years. Here are some that may help you help children in this frightening time. Visit for the resources we compiled to unite against hate.


22 Responses to “The People We Are Supposed to Be”

  1. Jonathan

    I am going to restrict my comments to the mistaken historical assumptions written in the article which appeared on Lily’s Blackboard on August 14, 2017. I will not address the violence and hate represented in Charlottesville because all rational people know that this type of behavior is unacceptable.

    When you write the following…

    “… a reverence for the generals of the Confederacy who fought against the United States for the rights of states to be free to enslave black people.”

    “These generals are their heroes precisely because they fought to protect the institution of slavery.​”

    …you show your lack of understanding of history.

    History is written by the victors and this one-sided view is then reinforced by way of the educational system.

    The U.S. Civil War is an excellent example of this. First of all, it wasn’t a Civil War in the true sense, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the War Between the States.

    Without getting too technical, there is a good argument to support the right of a state or group of states to secede from the Union. After all, the states created the Federal Government and gave it very specific and restricted powers. Read the Constitution and you will see this clearly. Most of the authority was retained by the states (thus the reason for the 10th Amendment).

    And, most importantly, rights were individual and inalienable in our country – given to us by a Creator. Our society was established from the bottom-up: individuals, states, then the Federal Government.

    This is in contrast to almost every other society in the world, most especially the monarchies of Europe and elsewhere. In those societies, fighting against the state was a real Civil War. The state was imposed on them in a top-down fashion. Citizens in these societies only had rights given to them by the state so when they rebelled against the State, they were engaged in a Civil War by definition.

    The South didn’t want war with the North – they wanted to be left alone to manage their own affairs. More importantly, when Lincoln started the war, he made it very clear that it was not a war to free the slaves. It was a war to reunite the country.

    In a letter to Horace Greeley Lincoln made this very clear:

    “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

    The “generals of the Confederacy” referred to by Lily’s Blackboard, did not fight the war “to be free to enslave black people.” The South fought a defensive war against an invading power. And the typical Confederate soldier (who didn’t own slaves) wasn’t fighting to keep slavery. He was fighting for his country against an invading power.

    My opinion does not express a belief that slavery was OK – slavery is reprehensible. But unless you have a historical perspective on the times, you won’t be able to understand what really happened and why.

    And you won’t be able to understand that, for many people, the Confederate monuments don’t represent slavery. Instead they represent a state’s right to self-determination.

    Maybe instead of tearing down those monuments (and thus attempting to, in effect, erase history), a compromise could be reached. Put those monuments in historical context by including a corresponding monument, statue or plaque which explains our modern perspective.

    In other words, keep the old and then include the new.

    Not everyone who supports the retention of those old Civil War monuments is a white supremacist or a racist. When you lump people together in this fashion you are engaging in your own form of prejudice.

    • Jen Lamkins

      This seems to be a rational response with two exceptions: 1.those states in defending their sovereignty did so the subjugation of another race (a glaring inequity in the declaration of independence which had been at the forefront of debate for some 30 years prior to the civil war) AND Lincoln actually did want to abolish slavery but did not want this to be the way/when to go about it. He knew force is never the answer to change if it is to last without bitterness and acrimony. There are primary sources of his early career and presidency to reflect this stance as early as 1837. 2. The statues in question were erected LONG after the “War Against Northern Aggression”, some 50 years later in most cases to glorify a bitter and ongoing war (Old joke: What was the last battle of the War of Northern Aggresion? It hasn’t been fought yet.) and promote white supremacy. It would be in comparison, using the nationalist movement, current Nazis in Germany could erect statues to honor the generals of WWII who fought bravely to protect the extinction of the Jews, the mentally and physically impaired and homosexuals, because really, this atrocity wasn’t really the focal point of the German offensive, but national pride and unity against the oppressive constrictions of the Versaille Agreement.

      I wish there were more memorials to people who were able to help make this country a better place without resorting to violence.


      • Teacher of History

        What you fail to acknowledge is that slavery was legal in the United States both prior to, and during the “Civil War”. Slavery was not ended in the “Union” states until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865.

        This simple fact makes it clear that, while slavery was an issue that helped to cause the ACW, the war was certainly not fought by a “slave-free” North/Union wishing to end slavery in the South/Confederacy. Slavery was, in fact, legal in both nations.

        These are basic fact any high school graduate should be aware of, any college graduate should know, and that every qualified teacher should be able to articulate.

      • Carolyn Olson

        The monuments have not assisted in teaching history as much as they have supported hatred. To memorialize a killer, a person not looking out for the community but only for a select group – it does not help all of us. I will teach peace this year in as many ways as I can.

    • Val E. Forge

      Good reply Jonathan. I think the statues could be great learning tools. I have great respect for an enemy (no matter how much I disagree with him or her) who is committed to his or her cause. These gentlemen were obviously committed to what they were doing, many enduring great personal loss and even death. Leave them up so liberals and conservatives both can ponder whether or not they are just as committed to what they believe as the fellows enshrined in the statues. They can serve better as a national conscience that way.

      • Taylor Layton

        The statues are such a misdirection here. They are symbols, and they only have as much meaning as we give them. Stop focusing on them like they are the reason protests get violent. We need to curtail violence on all sides- and I wish that Lily had some words of criticism for the small minority of counter-protesters who did not behave civilly or peacefully. Us on the left need to clean up our ranks.

        The liberals who feel really impatient about removing the statues, and think that they are a crux issue in defeating violent extremism, especially white supremacists, are confused. They aren’t helping anything.

        I haven’t seen anything to convince me that these statues will be anything but a divisive issue, that leads scores of people on both parties to vote, feeling 100% self-righteous, and understanding even less about today’s politics.

  2. Diane Smith

    Very well said Lily.

  3. Carl Holt

    Your complete lack of understanding about what the war was about is remarkable. This along side your obvious racism. Your side of this argument has shown 1000x’s more hate than any of the participants at the rally ever could.

  4. Rachel Rich

    Jim Wroght days it so much better than i can:


    They’re supposed to remind us of our history. Lest we forget.


    That’s the the argument, we need those monuments to remind us of our past.

    Well, they certainly do that, don’t they? Those monuments to a long dead enemy. To racism and slavery.

    Yes, they certainly do remind us of that.

    Those statues to the Confederacy were erected long after the Civil War, and they were erected for two reasons:

    1. As a screw you to the United States by those who would rationalize treason and defeat in defense of slavery and oppression as some great moral victory, and

    2. as a pointed reminder to black Americans that despite the outcome of that war, THEY were and would always be second class citizens.

    Those statues said very, very specifically “Even though we lost, even though slavery was defeated, even though you are now free, you will NEVER be our equal. Stay in your place. Or else.”

    And now? Now those same people say we can’t tear down those statues because we might forget history.

    Forget history.

    Let me tell you something of forgotten history:

    This is about context.

    In the context of the time when these statues were raised, black Americans were not equal. There was legally recognized Segregation in The South, but discrimination was legal in EVERY part of the United States and apartheid existed to some degree nearly everywhere in America.

    Don’t believe me?

    The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was dedicated in 1917. At the height of Jim Crow. More than fifty years after the Civil War. At that time, discrimination was literally written into State Constitutions across the country and they relegated black Americans to second class citizenship in every aspect of life from housing, to employment, to business, to banking and lending, to marriage.

    And that very much included military service.

    In 1917 the United States was at war in Europe. World War I.

    Now, 350,000 black troops served in units segregated from white soldiers. When those units served alongside mainline American forces, blacks washed dishes and did laundry and cooked.

    But when the Buffalo Soldiers served alongside French forces, they fought.

    One hundred and seventy-one African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor. One hundred and seventy-one.

    Do you know how many black soldiers were awarded the AMERICAN medal of honor in World War I?


    Freddie Stowers and Henry Johnson.

    I suspect you’ve never heard of either, for THEIR history is long forgotten by most Americans.

    Henry Johnson fought off a German patrol in the Argonne Forrest — by himself.

    On May 14, 1918 (while racists back home were raising money for a memorial to the Confederacy), Johnson fought hand to hand against TWENTY-FOUR German soldiers. Using the butt of his rifle as a club, grenades, a knife, and his bare fists, he killed a number of the attacking Germans and drove the rest back, he rescued fellow American soldier Needham Roberts, and was himself wounded 21 times.

    He fought off 24 German soldiers.

    And was wounded 21 times.

    They called him The Black Death.

    At the end of the war Johnson was awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest award for bravery, he was the first American to be so recognized.

    President Teddy Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest men” to have served in World War I.

    Johnson was wounded in battle, 21 times, but because he was black his wounds were not deemed worthy of recognition and it took until 1996 for the US Government to finally award him a posthumous Purple Heart — bestowed by Bill Clinton.

    Oh, and that Medal of Honor? That took a hundred years to approve, for one of “the bravest men” in World War I. Johnson received his medal posthumously, in 2015. It was awarded by President Barack Obama.

    There are no statues to Henry Johnson.

    Freddie Stowers died in combat while serving in a black American unit under French command during the battle of the Ardennes.

    Stowers’ unit was tasked with taking Côte 188, a hill occupied by German forces. The French and Americas were under heavy fire, but the black soldiers advanced steadily — until the Germans at the top of the hill signaled their surrender. Firing stopped, the Americans moved forward … and the Germans opened fire with machine guns.

    The surrender had been a ruse.

    Stowers’ commanding officer and the unit’s NCO’s were cut down. Nearly half the platoon was killed outright.

    And Corporal Stowers suddenly found himself in command.

    Stowers crawled up that hill, straight into German machine gun fire, commanding his men to follow. And they did. They took the first German trench. Stowers was wounded, but he refused help and led his men up and over and they took the second trench. Stowers was wounded again. This time fatally. As he lay dying, he commanded his men forward. Inspired by his courage they took the hill and drove the superior German forces from their position, forcing them into the valley below, winning the battle.

    Freddie Stowers is buried in the American cemetery alongside 133 of his comrades, black American soldiers who fell defending France under the banner of the United States, at Meuse-Argonne.

    Stowers’ courage was so astounding that he was recommended for the Medal of Honor immediately after his death — despite being black.

    But that recommendation was never processed.

    I don’t suppose I have to tell you why.

    Freddie Stowers eventually received that medal, seventy-three years after his death, awarded by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

    And so, here we are, in Charlottesville.

    When the President of the United States said last night, “They are trying to take away our culture” in reference to those who would pull down Robert E. Lee, he meant a culture that DOES NOT include two of the bravest men who ever fought FOR America.

    Trump defends a symbol that was purposely erected to remind men like Johnson and Stowers that they were not real Americans and that they’d better remember their place. Or else.

    People of conscience HAVE demanded the removal of Confederate monuments for more than a century now.

    They HAVE attempted to engage in civil discussion.

    But they have NEVER been afforded their due process. NEVER.

    Because it is the very nature of those symbols to deprive them of exactly that due process.

    Trump spoke of culture.

    Cultures change. The wheel turns. A hundred years ago this country raised up statues to white supremacy and turned a blind eye to Segregation, lynching, and oppression — and dismissed the bravery of Americans who gave their very lives for this country, because they were not white.

    Cultures change. The wheel turns. Today? Forty white supremecists showed up to defend a monument to racism.

    40,000 Americans showed up to tear it down.

    So tear it down.

    Cut its head off and shed no tears for a time that should have been buried long ago.

    You want to raise up a statue to forgotten Americans?

    You want a symbol in the town square that is a monument to our history? To the best of us? That reminds us of bravery and courage and sacrifice, of ideals that all Americans can embrace? To men we can all admire?

    Tear down Robert E. Lee and raise up Henry Johnson and Freddie Stowers in his place.

    Those are the men we should never forget.

    • John Lagnese

      Just add the other statues. Many of the. Confederate statues were made by families of Confederate soldiers who never returned.

      • Tracy

        You don’t get it, do you John? Just add the other statues….really? That’s like saying you’re beautiful in an ugly sort of way.

  5. John Lagnese

    Teachers must be sure to present the facts and let the students arrive at their position. Too many teachers are presenting liberal ideas as the correct and/or only ideas.

    • James

      Absolutely correct. An excellent teacher will teach both sides, not what their opinion is.

  6. Carolyn Olson

    …..facts? Which facts are we consistently not presented? I suspect teachers who are uncomfortable with talking about race haven’t been stopped while driving, repeatedly dismissed in professional meetings and have to consider safety in ways most white folks cant imagine. Why? Because they haven’t had to. This is entitlement. As teachers , I agree we teach facts so students are enlighten to make their choices-for our collective future. But, we must teach facts, stories from outside our comfort zone We must call hate what it is.

  7. Logan Butler

    I have been an NEA member since 2014. I canceled my membership after reading this. It is my opinion that NEA should be used for the support of students and teachers, not as individuals’ political soap box. That is who NEA is supposed to be. Go ahead and try to rewrite history to suit your liking, I will not be a part of it. This is almost as ridiculous as the holocaust deniers – as if by erasing history, our current social problems will be erased too. How flawed.

  8. Marlene Barney

    We’ll-said Lily! The object of those torch-carrying white nationalists was obviously not to save a statue. Were they chanting “Save the statue!” No. They were chanting hate-filled Nazi-like slogans like “Blood and soil,” and “Jews won’t replace us.”
    I agree that those statues provide educational opportunities. Like the Nazi artifacts in the National Holocaust Museum, they should be placed in a museum exhibit to remind us “Never again.”
    As for allowing students to “draw their own conclusions,” good teachers not only present the facts, but teach critical thinking skills, guiding and mentoring their students who lack maturity and don’t yet have fully developed frontal lobes to analyze, reason, and make good decisions.
    Hate has no place in a classroom – period!

    • John Lagnese

      The students also need to know what a small number of people are affiliated with fringe groups like this.

  9. Jay

    I find it interesting that at least two well composed replies to this yesterday have been deleted already. Both posts were respectful and well written, but did mention that Antifa was just as violent as the Nazis involved in this fray. Both of the extremes are violent and hate-filled, the evidence is all over our TV screens and can’t be denied. If you can’t be open-minded enough to recognize that then perhaps you should hang it up.

  10. Patrick Crabtree

    Lily, thanks for this! I posted in on “Just One Little Thing.” There were not things reported that also happened in Charlottesville. The crowd, before going to the square, were on the steps of the local synagogue having Shabbat services. The mob gathered and started yelling “Jews will not take our jobs.” Many whose memory and experience is still raw were stricken with fear. They had several Torahs that are valued at more than $50,000.00 each. They are hand scribed on sheepskin, which is the cornerstone to worship. They had to be gathered up and congregants were escorted out the back door. This was a clear case of intimidation. The stupidity of this statement got me. I am a recent Jew. I was employed when I was a Christian. How did or would I take someone else’s job? It was mine.

    During our Shabbat service in Atlanta last Friday we had a discussion about the fear we as Jews were having. My story was that I was in Mobile during the lynching of Michael Donald. The hanging of his body from a tree not far from my house and all the hate that spewed was atrocious. I knew the lawyers and one of the lawyers former wife was our school’s psychologist. I knew the story first hand. I was never so proud to be from Mobile, Alabama when an all-White jury convicted the killers and turned over all the Klan’s property to the Donald family. But, Charlottesville, Jeff Sessions, and the Trump rhetoric has put great fear in me. Will they be coming for me next or my synagogue? I thought we were progressing. One elderly lady spoke out in tears. Her parents perished in the Holocausts and by a stroke of luck she and her siblings were spared. Se cried as she told about how her family was threatened in Conyers, Georgia in 1963. they were told they had 24 hours to vacate Conyers. As she told the story with tears running down her face, she said, ” I do not want my children, grand children and great grandchildren to experience this fear. I thought those days were over.” It reminds me of an old Negro saying, “If they come for me by night, they come for you by day.”

    The Jews shielded their children as much as they could while in concentration camps, trying to keep fear away from them. Should we do the same? Or, should we tell the horrors about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. as raw as it happens to hopefully steer them away from hate group?

  11. Kim Hawkins

    I couldn’t care less if they take down all the statues of those Confederate Democrats. (I’m quoting somebody, but I don’t remember who.) Why people are conflating white supremacists and the KKK with Republicans, the party of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, is beyond me. The KKK was founded by Democrats, and Democrats do want to erase that part of their history. While a few hundred show up bearing torches, millions and millions of Republicans and conservatives condemn them as does our President. I believe educators need to do their job in a non-partisan way. All good people condemn hatred and violence. People who riot, ransack and vandalize shouldn’t get a pass, nor should people who strike and throw things at each other.

  12. Susan DeLeon

    Lily – I think you have forgotten your role as President of the NEA – it is not to spew your hatred towards the Republican Party – it is to provide guidance and factual information to fellow NEA members. Do you feel as though we are not intelligent enough to make decisions on our own? Your hatred and bias serves only your own purposes – you do not and will not speak for the majority.


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