Voices from Lafayette's Black community explore the role of education in reconciliation.

The head and the heart

Ola Prejean headshot
Ola S. Prejean is a retired school psychologist who worked in public education for 34 years. Photo by Travis Gauthier

My late husband Fredrick “Fred” Prejean and I were deeply aligned in the principles of fairness and justice and shared an unwavering desire to contribute and bear witness to realizing racial reconciliation in this nation. 

In our professions before retirement, Fred was an accountant and I was a school psychologist. I have vivid memories of Fred working to balance the books of his clients, our checking account, and the financial records of civic organizations he worked with. If the numbers didn’t balance, he’d recheck their accuracy. Were they in the right column? Had they been transcribed correctly? Could there have been any incorrect calculations? He couldn’t arbitrarily or randomly insert numbers to force balance. No matter how long it took to find the numerical culprit, he worked tenaciously to reconcile the records and ensure the figures were correct and in agreement — right down to the last penny. There was constancy in the numbers; anything out of balance was due to human factors. As he always said, “The numbers don’t lie.” 

For Fred, reconciliation in accounting was relatively simple compared to achieving racial reconciliation in his work as a civil servant and activist for social and racial justice. Fred would say, “The only way to reconcile the injustices of the past in our country is to recognize and acknowledge what has happened to African Americans. And that is not an easy thing to do.” I wholeheartedly agree with him! 

About Reflections on Reconciliation

Reconciliation, and what role education should play in it, has become more than a political hot potato. It has engulfed, even swallowed whole at times, both thought and tendency to acknowledge deeds of the past. We find ourselves in denial, and sometimes entertaining fiction and fallacy.

We asked a wide spectrum of commentators to consider reconciliation in the context of education, using this prompt: 

What is the importance of racial reconciliation in today’s world, and what role should education play?

Ruth Foote, collection editor

Racial reconciliation in the United States requires people to make the connection between the practice of enslavement, Jim Crow and systemic racism. It requires the acknowledgment of violations — past and present — and an orientation toward dignity, repair and protection for those who’ve been transgressed, with the aim of preventing future harm. Racial reconciliation requires addressing issues ranging from school segregation to policing to employment, and wealth and health disparities. In the quest for social justice, racial reconciliation requires more than what’s demanded in accounting: it requires agreements between humans, not numbers. It is much more elusive than mere math. 

Regrettably, Fred did not witness racial reconciliation in the United States of America in his lifetime. And as I observe the influence of politics in education and attacks on public libraries, I am not sure I will witness national racial reconciliation in my lifetime. 

A primary hindrance to national reconciliation is the inability to arrive at a shared truth. If we cannot agree on a shared truth about the events, interests and atrocities that created and upheld the practice of enslavement, we find ourselves stalled on the path toward racial reconciliation. 

Slavery began in 1619 and was abolished in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. But the Thirteenth Amendment did not guarantee that the United States would embrace Black people as citizens. We had to wait three years for the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 to be granted citizenship. It wasn’t until the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, that the denial of a citizen’s vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude was prohibited. 

Unfortunately, the wholesale celebration for Black people was not to be had since the voting rights afforded by the Fifteenth Amendment were not afforded to Black women. Moreover, Black men continued to encounter obstacles to full access to the ballot box. Even the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920, did not eliminate all barriers for Black women. Finally, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed barriers to Black enfranchisement in the South, banning poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures that effectively prevented African Americans from engaging fully in a key aspect of this nation’s democratic system.

Are we in agreement so far? I hope so, because those are the facts. That is the objective truth. 

We lose our shared sense of understanding when the details of these atrocities come into the light. We lose our collective ground due to the misguided belief that intellect alone canto process the casualties of our history. What is demanded of us is an ability to feel and acknowledge and process the emotions that arise in tandem with the recounting of history. 

In other words, for racial reconciliation to occur, we must have adequate tools for navigating the head and the heart. We must intimately understand generational disconnection and grief, guilt and shame, dehumanization and fear, defensiveness and humiliation, avoidance and denial.

We have textbooks that wholly bypass the head and heart work by whitewashing history, perpetuating false narratives around the practice of enslavement, and promoting the Lost Cause by glorifying those who fought to preserve slavery while denying the humanity of the enslaved. Some politicians would prefer students be served a sanitized, Pollyannaish revisionist account of our collective past. 

If schools aren’t educating all students about this history and if the power structures indulge white parents in clinging to the revisionist history they were taught, who’s teaching today’s white students the truth about this chapter of our shared history? 

Ola Prejean

There are schools in this nation banning the teaching of history as it happened; glossing over or completely ignoring the atrocities of the practice of enslavement, the disenfranchisement suffered because of Jim Crow laws and the struggles endured by advocates during the Civil Rights era. 

Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E. Act prohibits instruction that could presumably make white-identifying students feel responsible for or guilty about the past actions of other members of their race. In this scenario, who’s concerned about the feelings of today’s young Black descendants of formerly enslaved people? Where is the understanding, empathy, and compassion for these students? Forgoing teaching what happened does not mean it didn’t happen. Are some legislators trying to protect the psyches of young people they think are too fragile to handle the truth, or are they trying to protect themselves from having to explain how enslavers could have been so brutal to have engaged in such degradation against human beings just because of the color of one’s skin?

Black students have been told by their elders the truth about the practice of enslavement and its longitudinal impacts on the lives of Black people. If schools aren’t educating all students about this history and if the power structures indulge white parents in clinging to the revisionist history they were taught, who’s teaching today’s white students the truth about this chapter of our shared history? 

What are Black students to think when in 2023, Florida officials reject an AP African American studies class because it is “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value?” How do you explain to college-bound Black and non-Black students that an in-depth, rigorous examination of Black life, including the challenges, struggles, achievements, and contributions lacks educational value? If we can’t agree that all human stories have value, how can we even begin to consider racial reconciliation? 

To be clear, what’s occurring in Florida is not a one-time, one-place problem. It just happens to be the state dominating the media’s attention at the moment. If political trends and the prevalence of weaponizing culture wars have shown us anything, it’s that a legislature, school board, or library board near you could be the next headline. Our public library has recently begun banning book displays that address groups of people who may differ by sex, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, and other important social identities. With this action, whose stories are not being highlighted?  Whose truth is not being showcased? If we cannot agree on the need for unfettered access to factual information about our histories, we further delay opportunities to arrive at a shared truth.

Despite the political pressures to the contrary, I cling to the hope that our better selves will ultimately prevail. Recently, the people of Lafayette showed their resolve to engage both head and heart and arrive at a shared truth about our community’s past in relation to the Confederate General Alfred Mouton statue on public land in the city’s downtown. In 1921, with the blessings of the city government, the United Daughters of the Confederacy placed the statue — a Jim Crow symbol of hate and intimidation — in downtown Lafayette. 

Fred Prejean with a crane removing a statue in the background
Under Fred Prejean’s leadership, Move the Mindset was successful in getting the Mouton statue removed. Photo by Travis Gauthier

In 2016, Fred founded Move the Mindset, a grassroots organization committed to promoting racial and social justice through education, the arts, dialog and direct action. Through coordinated strategies of public education, community engagement, and litigation, a growing number of community members began to re-examine the narrative of Alfred Mouton. Under Fred’s leadership, Move the Mindset was successful in getting the statue removed. 

Those involved in this journey endured the arduous head and heart work necessary to arrive at a shared understanding of our community’s history. Was it a linear process? No. Was this holistic racial reconciliation? Absolutely not. Was it a step in the right direction? Yes, it was. Did it take too long to happen? Absolutely. Can we continue to build our muscle to engage head and heart to forge racial reconciliation? I hope so.

Maya Angelou wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” If we honestly face what happened in our nation’s past and acknowledge the remnants that persist today, rather than shirking in denial, guilt and shame, we make room for experiences of empathy, compassion and humility. Ultimately, courageously facing and teaching history as it actually transpired will lead to resolving not to repeat the transgressions of the past; to rebuking and dismantling the ideology which undergirds white supremacy; and to recognizing that all people are deserving, worthy and belong. And maybe, just maybe, Fred’s and my great, great grandchildren will experience what their great, great grandparents never had the opportunity to experience — life in a country that reconciled its racialized history.