Home Community and Culture The Cultural Legacy of Critical Race Theory and the Underground Railroad

The Cultural Legacy of Critical Race Theory and the Underground Railroad

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

The New York Times (NYT) 2021 Civil Conversation Challenge for Teenagers included a Forum on the Fight for Racial Justice, which facilitated discussions on “the legacy of slavery and racism in America in 2020” amongst youngsters. The discussions indicated a divide in terms of how young America viewed the issue of race. 

As NYT reported, while some young people believed that race was at the crux of inequalities in income or access to human resources, others considered racial emphasis to be problematic. Interestingly, many of these respondents also believed the exploration of “the legacy of slavery in schools to be “anti-American”. 

This difference in opinions quite significantly preceded the ongoing debate on the inclusion of critical race theory (CRT) in United States school curricula. In fact, Florida became the latest state to ban CRT as recently as June 10, 2021. The move underscored the speedy and sustained efforts of Republican lawmakers to change the American school system.

Speaking to Wink News, Columbia University Law School professor Kendell Thomas, who contributed to defining race theory, described it as a means of “enlarging the history” that has only been taught in part. Much of the opposition to this pedagogy can be viewed as an attempt to diffuse the idea of America being a racist country, especially in the aftermath of the protests following George Floyd’s death. Public servants and leaders, such as Governor Ronald DeSantis of Florida, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have been some of the most vocal (and notably conservative) opponents of this theory. 

The release of the period drama The Underground Railroad against the backdrop of this debate couldn’t have been more well-timed. Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel by the same name narrates a story of survival and resistance set primarily in the Interbellum South. Following the protagonist Cora’s initial escape from a plantation in Georgia, we see her make a perilous journey across a number of southern states, going back and forth between freedom and captivity. Interestingly, in his book, Whitehead imagined the railroad as an actual underground railway network and not the network of safe houses and roadways which comprised the real historical railroad. Jenkins’ directorial vision breathes life into this fantastical creation which stands as a symbol of collective resilience.

In a 2019 interview with Scroll, Whitehead had briefly discussed how the process of narrative-building had led him to realize his own family history and the contingent factors that made it possible for him to write the novel in 2016. When Jenkins had heard of the underground railroad for the first time, as a wide-eyed school kid, he told The Guardian that he’d imagined it being built by Black superheroes. Interestingly, Jenkins was optioning the rights to the novel at the time of Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. In his interview, Jenkins contests the idea of American greatness that was being purported at that time. He says, “There’s been great progress at certain times in American history. But there’s always been this dark side.” Just as both the book and the series revisit the darkest crevices of American history, one may ponder over the need to examine this history critically.

A number of southern American states, which were historically pro-slavery and find representation in the series, such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, have in the present been strongly opposed to the inclusion of CRT in their states’ schools. The notions of ‘anti-Americanism’ and ‘being taught to hate one’s country’ have been the most cited reasons for this opposition. 

In speaking to a few students and teachers from American high schools in different states, I learned that the teaching of American history engages with race in different ways across institutions. 

Susan Figueroa teaches English to senior high school students in Orange, New Jersey. She mentioned that even her approach to literature is informed by history. A crucial point that Figueroa made was about the tendency of schools to “teach to the demographic”. Having a large number of students of color in her class, she has always found it important to examine the racial question. Figueroa did suggest that this might not be the case in many white-majority school districts. 

Jessica Podskoch, who teaches in Bloomfield, New Jersey, pointed out that even as schools teach about the history of segregation and civil rights, there is a politics to what is included in the syllabi, and what remains left out. “I grew up in PA and feel that it (school curricula) varies from state to state. For example, I was never taught about Malcolm X. However, when I taught at Orange High School, his biography was in the curriculum,” said Podskoch, when asked about temporal changes in History pedagogy. CRT could then perhaps help achieve a level of uniformity, sans the practice of ‘teaching to the demographic’.

An 11th-grade student from Westborough High School in Massachusetts shared how at least a fourth of their readings are works by African American or Native American writers. Podskoch, on the other hand, said that her school in New Jersey is working on including more Native American writers in their classroom libraries. The history of the Native American communities, also marked by violence, predates the birth of the modern American nation-state. Herein arises the question of whether it would be ‘anti-American’ to teach this violent history. 

Trina Basu

Trina Basu, another high school student, from Sewell, New Jersey, expressed how she initially struggled to find a balance between her home and school cultures. The significance of this correlates to the fact that the United States has always been a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, and home to multiple ethnic and racial communities. CRT, as defined by its proponents, has the potential to enable students to examine a multitude of such cultural differences.

Those opposed to the same seem to believe an emphasis on difference to be divisive. Reading about an inter-racial couple from Chicago, who was dismissive of CRT, made me wonder if that might really be the case. Would children of an inter-racial couple, being taught CRT, come back home confused about the idea of seeing one parent as oppressed and the other as an oppressor? Or would it enable the possibility of dialogue, exploring the incredible journey of the socio-cultural growth of a nation? 

As for the question of systemic racism, to deny that it exists is laughable when Black women are still more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than women of other racial identities. Such disparities also exist in incarceration rates in the country. This calls for an examination of systemic factors making it more difficult for Black women to access better quality healthcare, or those leading to wrongful incarcerations or even greater crime rates within racial minority communities. Do racial minorities just have a greater propensity for crime or are poorer educational infrastructure, lesser job opportunities, and greater income inequalities across generations responsible for higher crime rates? 

Also, as Susan Figueroa suggested, the fact of more Black women dying of obstetric complications could have to do with the misconception of Black bodies having a higher pain threshold. This idea resonates with a scene in the second episode of Jenkins’ series, wherein the white Dr. Campbell marvels at the Black body’s capacity to endure all that the white man has inflicted on it. The fact of this violent infliction is a historical reality. CRT could then perhaps provide a means for reconciliation, enabling people to heal by collectively remembering a shared history, so as to address the problematic remnants of that historic legacy. Instead of designating people into binaries of ‘good’ or ‘evil’, it is possible to view events and people as products of their time while appreciating the progress made since then. This renders even more significant, the facts of Whitehead winning a Pulitzer or Jenkins winning an Oscar, all of which shape the contemporary American cultural milieu.

Puja Basu
Puja Basu
Puja Basu is a final year graduate student of English from Kolkata. She has a keen interest in diasporic and indigenous literature, spoken word poetry, and post-rock and prog-jazz music.
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