by Dr. Lois Barker

“Little girls should be seen and not heard” is a phrase that was hammered into my head by my  mother when I laughed too loudly in the streets with my friends or yelled out their names when I saw them passing by our grocery store. It is one of many threads whip stitching my childhood memories together. 

“Little girls should be seen and not heard” is a common retort from the teachers and nuns in the school yard, again, for girls having too much fun laughing and passionately talking about books and crushes on movie stars and cricket players.

“Little girls should be seen and not heard” is the mantra of the church and church-like women sewn into the very fabrics of their being every time I had a question or rebuttal. As if their words would help me understand why incest was okay to replenish the earth after the biblical flood, but now is a sin or crime; Or how parenting and disciplinary practices around me seemed to be steeped in Old Testament wrath yielding nothing but more generational anger when we could instead learn how to restore each other; Or why homosexuality is the sin that outweighs the others so heavily and often discussed with such disgust, yet we must forgive the married pastor who sleeps with other women in the church community, both married and unmarried; Or the grown man who molests the naïve school girl because she was “too fresh” even though he should have known better and was the adult. 

“Little girls should be seen and not heard” stems from that colonial birthed censorship, a page of the cultural bible meant to keep us in our place. At 25 I become a mother and quickly tore that page out, loosening up the saddle stitching for other pages to follow.  I would not bind my daughter’s tongue. I wanted her to feel liberated and be liberated. I wanted her to understand her right to be curious, her right to take up space, her right to hold the mic and speak loudly into it for she had ideas that needed to be confirmed, harms to dismiss, and truths to tell.

This past year politics has had a particularly heavy hand in education (not to say it isn’t always there). But this time there is a certain blatant evil, an intentional harm that passes with the stroke of a pen. 

This hand of censorship has been weighing down on my 7th-grader and attempting to wring out her mouth  to drain it of truths,  questions, critiques, and advocacy like the slight strangulation needed to rid a heavy drenched towel of every drop of water before hanging it to dry.

Last September, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill, part of which stated that educators cannot be compelled to discuss current events without giving deference to “both sides.” House Bill 3979 prohibits students from getting credit or extra credit for participating in civic activities. The bill also bans the teaching of the historically monumental 1619 Project. Not only does HB 3979 infringe on what students can learn or engage in, but it also restricts how educators can grow. The bill prohibits schools from requiring educators to take any training or professional development that “presents any form of race of sex stereotyping or blame on the basis of race or sex.” 

My Ava grew frustrated with her history assignments. She grew tired of writing letters from the perspectives of white settlers. She grew tired of wondering why Jamestown didn’t work out for the white settlers. She grew tired of being assigned either as a settler or explorer, as in the case of a Christopher Columbus mock trial. She grew tired of creating persuasive presentations from the perspectives, yet again, of white settlers to recruit them from England to the New World. My baby girl is exhausted. She was tired of asking why couldn’t see explore perspectives and real histories of the original stewards of this land. She grew tired of hearing “well, these activities are in the curriculum” or “they are in the team lesson plans and they will help get a  well-rounded view of early America.” 

“Something can’t be well-rounded or complete if all voices aren’t heard, mom.”

To kick-start the spring semester, students at my daughter’s middle school work on a passion project. They have one week to collect information on a topic they are passionate about and present their findings via a multimedia presentation. Students first present to their cohort. Teachers select the top two presentations from their cohort. Those students get to present to the entire student body.

Last spring, Ava’s presentation was about dismantling the practice of only highlighting Black literature during Black History month versus having a more diverse and inclusive English Language Arts curriculum. That year her presentation was good, but too lengthy (as if these truths should live within a 15-minute window). In December, her history teacher resigned after his first semester in his first year as a teacher. He told her he had to resigned because he felt his hands were tied and he couldn’t teach history as he wanted to.  

For this year’s passion project, she focused on the erasure or suppression of marginalized voices and histories in her social studies curriculum. She zoned in on HB 3979. She named what was happening—the white washing of this country’s truths. This time, her presentation was barred for being  too long. This time the presentation was “controversial.” She was told she shouldn’t have called out Greg Abbott. She was told although her presentation was excellent, she could get in trouble for the things she mentioned. She was told teachers might get in trouble if reported and so she couldn’t present to larger audience. She came home furious, asking me if this was censorship. Was this her being too loud with her curiosity? Too loud sharing her truths? Instead of her passion project, the presentation that moved on from her cohort, if I can remember correctly, was how zodiac signs got along. 

I felt her frustration and I thought about that page I tore out of my cultural bible at her birth. I remembered being told “no” to the books I wanted to read or the ideas I had for research papers. I remember the box they wanted me to  exist in. A box tightly-sealed with a clear front so I could be seen and not heard.

Unlike my mother, who encouraged me to sit within that box, I give my girl a box cutter to turn that prison into a platform for she will be seen and heard. For she will not be sealed up.

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Danelle Adeniji (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).

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