Millions of California school children never learn the origin of the state’s name.
That’s why I begin many of my discussions with teachers or students by asking “How did California get its name?”
The answer is usually so incongruous that I give it through a video clip of my documentary “Our Roots Run Deep” which pans through the Room of the Dons in the Mark Hopkins Hotel. I’ve learned it has to be seen to be believed.
Last year, we enacted that same experience of discovery through the one-woman play Queen Calafia: Ruler of California during a three-day run starring Ajuana Black at the African-American Art and Culture Complex.
The actress did a fabulous job of presenting the awe and amazement one experiences when learning about the origin of California.
We first presented the primary source account in Chapters Two and Three of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vol. 1, 1500-1900. Chapter Two describes the Maynard Dixon-Frank von Sloun murals in the Room of the Dons.
Chapter Three is a translation of Las Serges de Esplandian by Garcia Ordonez Montalvo, the 1510 Spanish epic which was the first written use of the word “California.”
In Las Serges, Montalvo describes California as an island nation populated solely by black women. As described by UC-Santa Cruz historian Margo Hendricks, Montalvo’s work was part of a genre of European literature from the 1300s to the 1500s which portrayed black women warriors as synonymous with wealth, courage and beauty.
The contrast between this genre and the way that blacks have been portrayed for most of the 500 years since is so glaring that we immediately seized upon this as a window to the examination and understanding of race.
In Volume Four of Our Roots Run Deep, The Black Queen: How African-Americans Put California on the Map, we present a series of lesson plans to explore not only the content of Las Serges, but the context of a Mediterranean area where Moors were dominant for 700 years in southern Europe through the end of the 1400s; and where West African emperors were fabled for their wealth in gold as far away as Mecca on the Arabian peninsula.
Students learn the role of mythology to create their cultural norms and how to determine what is actually true.
They can put themselves in the shoes of Cortes, who read Las Serges and believed that he had found the island nation of California just off the western coast of North America.
Most importantly, we want to them to ask deep questions about why this information has not been presented to them and generations of school children before them.
Queen Calafia, as Dixon and von Sloun portray, is a metaphor for the California quest for adventure, but her omission is a metaphor for the invisibility of the central role of blacks in the history of the Golden State.
It begins with the 300 black conquistadors among Cortes’ party, continues through the African ancestry of four in ten pobladores who settled the missions along the coast of Alta California, including the majority of the original settlers of sites like Los Angeles and San Jose; moves through the intrigues of competing black land barons from southern and northern California on whether the area would stay part of Mexico, go independent or join the United States and then begins a still-unresolved battle for racial justice in response to the intolerance that began with the Gold Rush.
As we survey today’s images of black women through such works as the Chris Rock documentary “Good Hair” where billions are being spent to live up to a completely foreign mythology or the caricatures of Tyler Perry, we must insist that all our students receive the primary source information about the proud heritage which they can make part of their own self-esteem.
Books such as Serena Williams’ new autobiography or the movie Akeelah and the Bee demonstrate the power of positive self-image as part of the educational experience. Educators who fail to employ the magic of California’s African-American experience are doing themselves and their students a disservice.
Now that a new school year has begun, parents should insist that by March 5, which is Black American Day in the California Education Code, that classrooms demonstrate proficiency in California’s African-American heritage. During February, which is not only Black History Month but also the time for National African-American Parent Involvement Day, parents should ask what is being presented and why.
Our study Black Heritage as Gap Closer demonstrates through a research study what types of lessons truly embody culturally-responsive instruction during Black History Month and throughout the year. Armed with these tools, parents can effectively advocate for their children.
Let’s not let another year of ignorance proscribe the futures of our children.