Updated: Jul 22, 2020
"And whatever that costs, it will not amount to what is owed to us.”
-- Meleika Gardner
Evanston resident Meleika Gardner has a vision. And that is for Black elementary and high school students in Illinois to learn that their story didn’t begin in shackles and chains--that it goes far deeper and is much richer than students in this country have ever learned at school. She believes that African American--and all--students deserve to learn the full, accurate history of Black people starting before they were captured, shipped across the Atlantic, and enslaved in the United States.
“I believe it will enrich lives, save lives, help close the academic opportunity gap, and help to resolve race relations,” Gardner told me this weekend. “It is important that all children of all cultural backgrounds are taught the correct information.”
And as of last week, Gardner’s dream is this/close to becoming a reality.
That’s because she wrote an amendment to HB4954, sponsored by Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th), that would make it mandatory to teach students about pre-enslavement in Illinois schools’ Black history curriculum. The amendment passed 14-7 in committee last Wednesday, and the amended bill will be heard by the full House of Representatives the week of March 16.
Now Gardner--who is on the board of WE WILL Non-Profit, an organization that helps women get involved in legislation and encouraged Gardner to push forward--is putting out an urgent call to everyone who supports a fuller, deeper more truthful treatment of African American history in Illinois schools to contact their representatives by phone, email, and/or social media ahead of next week’s vote.
“The next round of questions from opponents will more than likely be about funding a new curriculum,” Gardner said.
“We have been talking about reparations for quite some time. And though many Black families would love to receive a big check in the mail for the pain and damage done over hundreds of years, we know that’s probably not going to happen. But reparations is not just about monetary payback. It’s about repairing harm. It would be a beautiful gift to our children to give them their history, their true history, back. And whatever that costs will not amount to what is owed to us,” she said.
Last week, Gardner testified before members of the House School Curriculum & Policies Committee with passion and conviction:
“Before we were enslaved and terrorized, we built civilizations, we had kingdoms, we had riches ... we were kings and queens ... we contributed to medicine and technology before we became America’s technology. We were strong people. And then enslavement occurred,” Gardner told committee members.
"This needs to be taught to our children. I know, from my experience, that this will help our Black children with their self-respect, their self-knowledge, their self-worth.”
Gardner said she believes that teaching the true history of Black Americans would also improve race relations.
“In Evanston, Illinois where I am from, there’s issues with white children calling Black children the N-word,” she testified. “And why? Because they see it as their people owned us, and that’s all they know.”
HB4954 also includes an amendment by Rep. Ford that would expand and deepen the teaching of the Civil Rights movement. During the committee meeting, Rep. Ford said it was imperative that the amended bill pass in the House to “get history right in Illinois.”
He told the committee that there are two options: “Fix it, or just eliminate teaching history in Illinois because it’s miseducating the entire population, and that’s not right.”
I recently asked Gardner, who is an Evanston activist and the founder of Evanston Live TV, what brought her to this moment--how she persevered and found herself in Springfield propelling this powerful school-code amendment forward.
Here’s what she told me [edited slightly for length]:
“I went to grade school where there were very few Black students. My grade school friends were from countries all around the world. I envied that they had their own school to go to after our general school all together. My Jewish friends had Hebrew school, my Greek friends had their own school, my Japanese friends had their own school. My friends were very solid in who they were and where they came from, even as children.
“In our history books growing up, the images of Black people were of slavery and nothing more, and then it would jump from slavery to Martin Luther King. We received maybe two pages in the entire text book on our history. I was called the N-word as a child, and told that I was a slave. I thank God for my family who instilled our history in me at home and at Sunday dinners. But not everybody has that education at home.
“To date, children have not been educated on the true history of Black people prior to enslavement where we were kidnapped and terrorized for years. The only part that is taught is with Black people starting out as slaves in shackles and chains.
“Fast forward to 2019. I was hired to organize a Black History Month panel discussion for a company last year. This company had very few Black people on their staff. Out of 50 attendees, only three Black staff were in the room, which was filled with highly paid professionals from 30 to 50 years old.
"I asked the attendees what they knew about Black people and our history. The only response: we were slaves. I asked what contributions Black people made to America and to the world. The only response: hip-hop.
“My father was gunned down as a young man, and my nephew Xavier Joy was a victim of gun violence two years ago. I have lost friends to gun violence. I asked God, ‘Why are we killing each other?’
I believe in my heart that the answer is a lack of self-worth and self-knowledge due to systemic and institutional racism. If a young Black man does not see his own value, it is nothing for him to pick up a gun to kill someone who looks like him, because he hates himself. If he knew where he came from, how powerful his history is, and his potential, I believe he would not have a desire to kill his own community.
“I started having meetings over a year ago about opening a school that teaches the history of Black people. I got push back and a lot of responses as to why it wouldn’t ever happen. Then I started thinking about making it mandatory that schools teach the true history of Black people.
“I was asked to join the Board of WE WILL. I had a conversation with Alexandra Eidenberg [founder of WE WILL] about my idea. She suggested I put the idea out on the WE WILL Facebook page to see if any members knew of similar bills. One member said Representative LaShawn Ford had a bill on slavery, but not about pre-enslavement. I called him and arranged for a phone conference. He loved the idea, and invited me to speak at a press conference in Springfield.
“In February, he invited me and WE WILL members to the Black Caucus Soirée in Springfield. We met with as many State Senators and House Representatives as we could to get support, and Representative Ford added my amendment to his HB4954 bill.
“I went back to Springfield for the House Committee hearing this past Wednesday to testify along with Rep. Ford. Now the bill moves to the floor for a second call to vote by the House and we need everyone to call or email their Representatives to support HB4954 and teaching our children correct history. This new history curriculum should be funded without question."
You can find your representative here.
Photos: Meleika Gardner, Evanston Live TV; Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D), 8th District