The assignment was to write a formal letter to persuade Christopher Columbus to allow us to work on his ship.
At the time, 8-year-old me was in second grade at a home-school co-op, and I was excited. I read a list of the different jobs available — everything from head chef to sailor to timekeeper and a few others.
It wasn’t until later, when I showed my mom my final letter, that I understood how disturbing the assignment was. “Why would you want to work for Columbus?’’ she asked me. She proceeded to tell me about the history of colonization and what happened to the Taino people in what is now Haiti: They were robbed, enslaved, killed, or they died from diseases they contracted from the colonizers.
I felt shocked, embarrassed, and angry all at the same time. After thinking about the question with my new knowledge, I concluded I most certainly wouldn’t want to work for Columbus — nor with him or anywhere near him or with the Spanish Empire. I wouldn’t want to be a part of a group of people responsible for the genocide of Indigenous people and ultimately, the attempted genocide and enslavement of my own ancestors. I couldn’t believe that my teacher thought the essay prompt was good for a Black student or for any student.
I also couldn’t believe that I had blindly assumed the excitement of my White teacher and White peers in wanting to complete the assignment. That is what centering a lens that doesn’t include your own does to you. You start to take on the identities of those around you at the cost of your own.
At the co-op I attended, the history class had a severe lack of diverse viewpoints. That meant we learned through the lens of the victors, oppressors, and Europeans, but not through a perspective that included me. The co-op was a predominately White religious space that centered on Westernized culture. All of this can make those not included in the majority feel as though their own histories are not important, giving way to feelings of shame and even self-hate. Without your stories being added, you become invisible and silenced.
This is also harmful even to those who are led to believe their stories are the only ones worthy of being shared. It promotes a false narrative of supremacy and worthiness. This brainwashing, if not corrected, leads to mass systems of inequalities based on race.
I’ve been home-schooled since kindergarten. I’ve attended numerous home-school co-ops, both online programs and in-person. At a home-school co-op, home-schooled students gather at a common location for academic lessons and activities. There was only one other Black family at the first co-op I attended. The history classes there skimmed over Black experiences and events, never staying on the topic too long. When we did discuss Black history it always revolved around slavery and oppression. Hearing primarily negative things about Black history made it seem like there was nothing positive about it. I think learning that way can brainwash you into being ashamed of your heritage.
When teachers did shine a positive light on Black history, they only talked about the same four people: Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. And still, those stories centered on their pain and fights to be seen as equal human beings. We always learned about Black historical figures who lived a long time ago, but never current examples of Black excellence. It seemed like the curriculum started with enslavement, then skipped to the Civil Rights Movement, and ended there. I kept asking myself, what am I missing? How can I imagine a future with such limited examples of Black greatness?
The year of the Christopher Columbus assignment was my last at that particular co-op. I started attending Cultural Roots Cooperative, a home-school co-op with an Afrocentric focus that my mother started in Virginia.
I love going to a diverse co-op with lots of unique classes. There are students and teachers of varied ethnic backgrounds and family configurations. It is also diverse in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity, religious affiliation, language and income. We travel from different parts of the Richmond, Virginia metropolitan area to be in community with each other. The students have a say in what courses are being offered each year, which gives us agency over our own learning. We are able to choose the classes and where we want to go for field trips. The co-op recognizes and celebrates people of color all year, not just in February or during other heritage months. We intentionally select and celebrate champions to represent the ethnic backgrounds of myself and my classmates. Being at a culturally centered co-op makes me feel celebrated instead of tolerated.
I’ve continued attending Cultural Roots throughout middle school and now high school. My mother, who taught at public schools before starting the co-op, and the other teachers have been able to create experiences for us like Black and Indigenous history classes all taught by people of color. Almost every class — from creative writing to World History and our weekly book club — centers people of color. In these classes, we are able to go deep into the histories of Black people and other people of color. We discuss things that normally are not spoken about in other schools or co-ops. My fellow classmates and I are able to think for ourselves and learn about all sides of history. We are often researching to try to understand what voices are being left out and why.
Attending a culturally centered co-op has taught me to celebrate myself and to always ask how my own race contributed to or was impacted by various events, inventions or people. As a home-schooler at a culturally centered co-op, I have been able to learn in a space where there is an understanding and a recognition of the importance of Black history and culture.
Many students like me don’t have similar opportunities to dive deeper into the histories of Black people and other people of color. This all comes at a time when Black history is being heavily debated, erased, or rewritten altogether in public schools. I urge any student who wants to learn more about their history to take the initiative to do so.
I understand not everyone has a parent who can create a whole co-op for them, but perhaps just obtaining a library card, membership at your local Black History Museum, and placing yourself within highly diverse spaces would be just as impactful.
It would certainly help you challenge any teachers or assignments that ask you to persuade Christopher Columbus to let you join his expedition.
Jordan Wright is a 10th grade student at Cultural Roots Homeschool Co-op in Richmond, VA. Her hobbies include musical theater, creative writing, and computer science. She’s the author of two books and co-runs a science tutoring business with her sisters. She hopes to become a software engineer and one day write the next great American short story.