‘I will not lie to my students.’ Teacher’s real history of Columbus tweets go viral
Nathanael Madden is a fourth grade teacher at Cold Spring Elementary in Potomac, Maryland. Madden says he had begun to wake up to the state of racial injustice and police brutality in 2016, and decided he wanted to be informed.
He said that as a teacher it was a responsibility to inform himself about things he might not know regarding racial inequality among all peoples.
For this year’s Columbus Day, Madden decided to share the real history of Columbus with his students. After his students learned about the untold history of Columbus as a slave trader, murderer of Indigenous peoples and more, Madden posted the thoughtful responses of his students on Twitter.
Madden’s tweet, along with the responses toward Columbus in a lengthy thread, went viral with 17.5K retweets and 46.6K likes.
Madden’s tweet read: “My 4th grade students recently read of the true history of Columbus’ career as a slaver and the genocide he began in the Caribbean. I asked them: What new information did you learn? How did this affect you? Why is this important to learn? Here are some of their responses:”
In an interview with Madden via email, he spoke to the thoughtful responses of his students, the response on Twitter, and his thoughts about the importance of teaching the true history of Columbus.
How did you first learn of Columbus’ real history?
In 2016, I began waking up to the racial injustice still present in our country, particularly police brutality toward Black folks. Through that, I began to wonder about other things I didn’t know, hadn’t been taught properly, or about which I had remained willfully ignorant. I picked up a copy of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and started reading. That led me to other people, articles, books, and sources to search through. Reading Andrés Reséndez’ book, The Other Slavery, which is about the history of the enslavement of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, was also very eye-opening.
Did you have apprehension about teaching the real history? Backlash afterwards from teachers or parents?
Whenever I teach something that directly contradicts the American origin myths, I can expect to get some level of pushback. But when I consider the importance of teaching truth and centering the lives, experiences, and voices of historically marginalized people, all apprehension fades away. I will not dishonor Indigenous peoples by repeating the lies that are told about them. I will not honor European “explorers” when their rightful place in history is as the slavers and colonizers they were. I will not lie to my students.
What are your thoughts now everything has been done?
I’m incredibly proud of my students and the hard work they put in during this learning. We’d been learning about Indigenous peoples and cultures pre-1492 for several weeks before coming to the point of contact with Europeans. In Maryland, Columbus Day is still the official holiday, but as a class, my students decided on celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead. They made posters to put up all over the school with messages about celebrating and honoring Native peoples as well as some of the facts they had learned, and some students even wrote letters to our school administration about changing the holiday in our school, albeit unsuccessfully. And our learning has just begun.
Thoughts on the viral tweet?
I must say I was completely shocked by how much traction the whole thread gained. It started off slowly on the evening I had posted it, but the next morning I saw that one of my personal heroes, Dr. Debbie Reese (@debreese), had retweeted it, and it started spreading exponentially from there. I’m just so glad that it struck a chord with people, so many of whom saw it as encouraging and even healing to them. Seeing the words of my students have such an impact was amazing.
What are some of the students thoughts after the fact?
They were so excited to see that some of their words had become “so famous!” And they are more determined than ever to continue learning the truth of history.
What else do you intend to teach the real history of?
Thanksgiving is coming up soon. As we continue learning from and about Indigenous peoples, and as we progress through European colonization of the main continent, we will be challenging the many myths surrounding the holiday and its history. We’ll also be looking at the US government policy of removal, sovereignty of Native nations, and modern Indigenous resistance to settler colonialism. An honest look at US history requires a confrontation with White supremacy and the role it has played from colonization through today.
Is there an untaught historical story of your ethnicity, culture etc?
I’m White. The families of three of my grandparents have been here for generations, so my history is that of the colonizers and settlers of lands that had been occupied by hundreds of different Indigenous groups for millenia. I’d say one piece of often untaught history is how we came from being the English, Swedish, Irish, German, and dozens of other groups to being simply “White.” I’d highly recommend Dr. Nell Irvin Painter’s book, The History of White People, to anybody, particularly White folks, who want to delve into that history.
Thoughts about the untaught history of Native people?
The vast majority of American school curriculum centers the Europeans and Euro-Americans that “built the country,” but for me, American history cannot be taught honestly without Indigenous history. What I’m saying and teaching is nothing new or remarkable, especially to Native folks. However, with the vast majority of US teachers being White and having been taught the uncritical, whitewashed myths of American history themselves, it’s still something that’s seen as out of the norm. Often times, students receive no education on Indigenous peoples before Columbus and no education on Indigenous peoples today. It’s like Native peoples have only ever existed between 1492 and around 1900. In my class, we start with the many civilizations that flourished in the Americas for thousands of years before Europeans showed up with “Western civilization” and we go all the way through to modern times. Later this year, we’ll be learning about the intersections between Indigenous resistance and climate change today, such as Standing Rock and Mauna Kea.
Email - Vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com