The struggle over how to teach America’s past is itself a test


Kalela Williams, the writer and educator behind Black History Maven, on why “we can’t afford to be shy about talking about the past.”

black history expert

Kalela Williams of Black History Maven as a historical interpreter / Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution

Benjamin Franklin he did not coin the phrase that nothing can be certain except death and taxes. Other writers said it first. But of all, he, as a founding father, as an enslaver, and later as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, might well have thought to add a third item to that list: history.

The story is true. It happened, and it’s happening right now.

I traffic in this ongoing story roll. As the owner of Black History Maven, a company that offers historical tours and talks, I discuss it in nuance. As a historical interpreter for museums and other institutions, I wear clothing that represents 18th-century American life: a hand-sewn gown, petticoat, and all the accessories, and share my knowledge of this revolutionary era with others.

As an educator for the Mighty Writers organization, I teach children to draw inspiration from ancestry and memory while writing prose or poetry. And when I wear my writer’s hat, history weighs heavily on my fictional worlds. It is part of my livelihood. So I literally can’t afford to be shy about talking about the past.

But none of us can. And yet, what we often want from history seems to be a children’s book, one with a neat beginning, middle, and end rather than the erratic arcs and zigzags of reality.

Whether I wear H&M jeans or 18th-century linen replicas, my historical work often leads me to people looking for hero’s journeys rather than lives replete with the mess and complexities of being human. They often yearn for nice stories of honor and integrity, and just that, just that. But I don’t have easy stories.

There are no easy stories.

Alright. It doesn’t have to be. Instead of inventing a fable, we can play the ball of history as it is, so that the truth of our American past can sink in. From a practical standpoint, this means teaching young people how to think critically and about the importance of seeing and understanding nuance. Children and teens may find that the voices of those who lived before us, recorded in diaries and personal letters, are just as fascinating as policy documents and famous speeches.

Also, teaching history is realizing that there is nothing to fear, period. Yes, there is pain in history, in particular, perhaps, in the black history of the United States and the Caribbean. That shames no one alive except those who cling to the bigotry of others long gone. The reward is real. Black history should inspire us all, shining a light on how generations before us have built on resilience, community, and family. It sets out, in brilliant detail, how we can all claim a better world.

The truth is that hiding the past of our country does not change anything. And that story continues with each passing day. Today’s struggle for teaching will itself be tomorrow’s lesson. Will we pass this crucial test, qualified by the minds of the new generations?

Or will we fail?

kala williams is a writer and educator living in South Philadelphia. She explores various stories of hers through her company Black History Maven and serves as the managing editor of the Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia youth organization. her novel and hers, The Tangleroot Papers, leaves Feiwel & Friends in the winter of 2024.

Published as “History is our judge” in the September 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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