CHERYL CORLEY, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Cheryl Corley.
The story of teenager Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicagoan who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, continues to make headline news. It was just a few months ago that Mississippi officials and the U.S. Justice Department decided not to file charges and close their renewed investigation into Till's death.
Here in Los Angeles, it's been a school assembly and poetry about Emmett Till that's been at the center of a firestorm over how to teach black history.
Ms. MARILYN NELSON (Author, "A Wreath for Emmett Till"): (Reading) "Emmett Till's name still catches in my throat like syllables waylaid in a stutterer's mouth. A 14-year-old stutterer in the South to visit relatives and to be taught the family's ways. His mother had finally bought that White Sox cap. She'd made him swear an oath to be careful around white folks. She told him the truth of many a Mississippi anecdote. Some white folks have blind souls. In his suitcase, she'd packed dungarees, t-shirts, underwear and comic books. She'd given him a note for the conductor, waived to his chubby face, wondered if he'd remember to brush his hair. Her only child, a body left to bloat."
CORLEY: That was a reading by Marilyn Nelson, a former poet laureate of Connecticut and author of "A Wreath for Emmett Till." Nelson's narrative poem, and elegy for Till, was written especially for young readers. But just how young became an issue at Celerity Nascent Charter School, when some seventh graders wanted to recite lines from Nelson's book during a school program for Black History Month. Teacher Marisol Alba says the students also plan to place flowers as if they were a wreath over a picture of Emmett Till.
A day before the event, Alba says school administrators said the assembly was designed to promote pride and achievement, and the Emmett Till story was too graphic and inappropriate for younger children.
Ms. MARISOL ALBA (Teacher, Celerity Nascent Charter School): No reenactment of the Emmett Till tragedy was ever going to happen - even if we wanted to, we only have a five minute time piece. I really don't appreciate the comment that the director, Vielka, made about history being presented in a certain way. I majored in history. I learned history from the best of the best. I've had guest professors, Dr. Cornel West, come. I know how to present history, I do. And I would never ever have an open-casket or a reenactment of a beating when there's 8 year olds there.
CORLEY: The seventh graders did other readings, but Alba and another seventh grade teacher, Sean Strauss, were fired after signing protest letters that had been written by students.
Mr. SEAN STRAUSS (Teacher, Celerity Nascent Charter School): The day that the presentations were going to be done, I heard from Ms. Alba that Ms. Canada cancelled their plans. Ms. Alba went on to tell me that students wrote letters of protest, and she showed me some of them. She had signed a couple of them. I read one of them, and based from what I've heard from Ms. Alba - which was clarified by the students that we share - I disagree with the principal.
And I felt this should be able to go on. And it was the students who were taking the leadership position of writing the letters, so I decided I was going to support these students. They'd earned my respect, so they deserved my support. So I signed one of the letters.
CORLEY: There was a lot of confusion among parents. Some agreed that the school took the right step. Many others, like Marcia Olsten(ph), an African-American parent of one of the seventh graders, thought Celerity administrators were clearly wrong. She took particular issue with the school principal, who Olsten says told students who wanted to honor Till that if the teenager had whistled at a white woman 57 years ago, it was sexual harassment.
Ms. MARCIA OLSTEN (Parent of Celerity Charter School Student): When I found out what happened, I called and I spoke to Mrs. Canada and I explained to her what my son had told me. And I told her that I was very upset that she would use the word sexual harassment in relation to the Emmett Till case. I might explain to her if you're going to teach at a predominantly black school, then you need to make sure if that if you're teaching black history that you tell the whole story. And I explained to her that you cannot pick and choose what you want to say.
History is history - the good, the bad and the ugly. Black history is not pretty. As a black parent, I'm appalled. You know, and she told me that she was surprised and she was impressed that they were well versed, that they knew their information. But still, her decision stands.
CORLEY: The executive director of Celerity Nascent Charter School, Vielka McFarlane, accepted our invitation to be on NEWS & NOTES, but later declined after we told her we would also be speaking with the fired teachers and the parents who disagreed with the school's decision to cancel the Emmett Till presentation. We also contacted the California Charter Schools Association. Spokesman Gary Larson was unavailable.
Celerity Nascent is a mostly African-American school. Latinos students also attend. And in the spirit of disclosure, the teachers in this dispute are Latino and white, the principal is Asian and the executive director, Ms. McFarlane, is of Jamaican descent. The controversy at Celerity raises a larger issue: How should history - and, in this case, African-American history - be taught, especially to younger children?
With us to discuss this is Dr. Elaine Mosley, chief education officer of the Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago. Thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. ELAINE MOSLEY (Chief Education Officer, Betty Shabazz International Charter School, Chicago): Thank you.
CORLEY: Well, Dr. Mosley, we wanted to talk to you because Emmett Till was from Chicago, and his story is no stranger to students at your school. So I'd like you talk a bit just about the Betty Shabazz International Charter School itself.
Dr. MOSLEY: Betty Shabazz International Charter School is a 10-year institution. The approach that we use to educating our children is an African-centered approach. And what that simply means is that we understand as educators that the education of children - of all children, regardless as to what cultural group they happen to belong - their education begins with who they are.
CORLEY: In the Celerity case here in Los Angeles, teachers apparently weren't given any guidelines for the school assembly. But part of the effort, according to school officials, was to present a positive view of black history. What about the idea that what we teach may be often about the horrific things that occur to black Americans or the strife of the civil rights movement and we need to look forward?
Dr. MOSLEY: The fact of the matter is the history of African-American people, Africans in America, is essentially a tapestry of both tragedy and triumph. So you can't speak about celebrating contributions that Africans in America have made to the country - to the world, to civilization as such - without also including tragedy. You can't speak about one without speaking about the other. And so our children - as we think about educating them and helping them to understand our history - they need to know the whole story.
CORLEY: You have no involvement with the charter school here in Los Angeles where the controversy has taken place, but what are your thoughts about what happened and how it was handled?
Dr. MOSLEY: I think that the losers in all of this, unfortunately - as is often the case - are our children. They are the ones who have been adversely affected. It's interesting that this book of poetry that was written by the author, Marilyn Nelson, was written especially for young readers. And this is a poet laureate that we're speaking of.
And so obviously, the content of the book was appropriate. The teacher who presented the information to the children who encouraged them, who inspired them to do the research, to consider these readings about young Emmett Till, some thought went into that. And so it's very unfortunate that things evolved the way they did.
CORLEY: Ms. Nelson herself did write a letter to the school expressing her kind of disapproval with the actions that took place there. But is there an age-appropriate level for teaching children about history overall? When should that process begin?
Dr. MOSLEY: At birth. It should begin at the point of inception, when you're reading to your children, when you're singing to your children, when they step into the universe and you begin to teach them who they are. Every geo-cultural group in the world understands the importance of culture and the importance of transmitting culture to our children.
And so when we think about Africans in America, unfortunately, this is nothing new here. It's the same old story. You have to take a different approach. You have to speak about only the positive things, the things that represent somebody's idea of success when, in fact, the story of our experiences in this country is a tapestry of tragedy and triumph.
And I don't think that's any different for any of the other geo-cultural groups.
CORLEY: Dr. Mosley, should African-American students be taught from an Afro-centric perspective? And what do you say to critics who might say that limits black children in someway?
Dr. MOSLEY: It limits our children no more or no less than it limits European children to be taught from a European point of view, Asian children to be taught from an Asian point of view. Children need - as all people need - to be able to view the world through their own eyes.
CORLEY: Do you think that there is sometimes a feeling to have to apologize for African-American history when it's being taught, even if the teacher is black, because it's more palatable that way or…
Dr. MOSLEY: Unfortunately, yes, because speaking about the triumph is easy. It's not so easy to speak about tragedy. And so to sidestep that which has traditionally been done in terms of African people because of the scale in which the oppression of a people occurred, it's not a subject that most people are comfortable speaking about.
You see, this discussion about Emmett Till, for example, think about the place, the time in which this incident occurred and compare that to where Africans in America are today. How could you not speak about triumph over tragedy if you looked at it from a comparative point of view?
CORLEY: So it all depends on how you teach it?
Dr. MOSLEY: Exactly. Exactly.
CORLEY: Dr. Lynn Mosley is the chief educational officer of the Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago. Thank you so much for your time.
Dr. MOSLEY: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
CORLEY: Just ahead, FBI Director Robert Mueller continues to ask lawmakers for a chance to get the Patriot Act right. And we checked in with a lesbian couple in New Jersey leading the fight for marriage rights.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.