“If you’re so proud of America’s history, look at the downsides too. Own it just like you own how we won the Revolutionary War.”
Fifth grade student
Iris Haq-Lukolyo’s portrait in the Fearless Portrait project consists of an ink drawing of her holding a copy of the magazine with her article in it, while wearing a T-shirt that with Kamala Harris’ “I’m Speaking” quote on it. I’ve drawn her on a contemporary map of her hometown of Pearland, TX. While Haq-Lukolyo herself fits within the edges of the town on the map, the magazine she is holding straddles the boundaries of the map and extends far into the margins of the paper, just as her voice did through the article.
A warm day in September 2020, ten-year-old Iris Haq-Lukolyo logged into her virtual classroom from the small desk in a bedroom of her Pearland, TX home. Her teacher said they would be learning about the Founding Fathers that day and how they built America.
Something seemed missing from the lesson though, so the only Black student in the class spoke up:
"I went off of mute, and I said, 'But didn't slaves build America?' And my teacher was like, 'oh, no, we don't talk about that in this classroom.'"
The teacher didn’t address the topic of slavery that day, or include it in any of lessons for the rest of the year, despite the fact that many of the Founding Fathers collectively enslaved thousands of Black people. Slavery also wasn’t something limited only to the cotton plantations in the South—at the time of the American Revolution, New York City was second only behind Charleston, SC in slave population. Even the White House and Capitol were built with slave labor.
Devastated by the teacher’s harsh reaction, Haq-Lukolyo turned off her camera and cried. Her tears soon turned to action though. “As soon as I got on lunch break, I just took the whole break and started writing,” she says. An avid writer, Haq-Lukolyo quickly filled two notebook pages with her thoughts on the incident:
"In Social Studies class, we were learning about who built ‘the greatest country in the world, America.’ The teacher started listing names like George Washington and other overrated white historic figures. And I was like, ummm, did you forget something about who actually built America? If you are so proud of America’s history, look at the downsides too. Own it just like you own how we won the Revolutionary War."
After detailing the incident and how black history is treated in schools, Haq-Lukolyo closed the essay with a plea:
"I’m a fifth grader in Texas and I’m asking teachers two things: First, don’t shut down or mute conversations about slavery. It took courage for me to come off mute and make that contribution only to be shut down by the teacher. That hurts. Second, please teach American history in a way that shows the complex and, yes, racist history of our country. Students deserve to learn the ugly sides of our history so we won’t repeat the same mistakes, and also learn about amazing black historical figures beyond Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman. These changes will make me feel seen and comfortable as a Black child in a classroom in America."
Her mother showed the essay to some friends and one recommended submitting to Skipping Stones, a national youth literary magazine. Skipping Stones published the article in December 2020 to widespread acclaim.
“One person—which was my teacher—wasn’t hearing or listening to me, but thousands of other people were,” says Haq-Lukolyo.
Her mother, Dr. Heather Haq, elaborated saying, “We heard from people all over the country, saying what a strong and powerful voice she had, how much clarity she had in her writing and how brave she was to not only stand up in the first place in her class, but then to also use her voice again to write this article. And we had people share that, ‘Oh, something like this happened to me when I was a student. But I never spoke up about it and I'm so glad you did.’”
After the incident, Haq-Lukolyo and her mother requested a meeting with the teacher to share how the classroom incident had affected her. The teacher made an attempt at an apology that fell flat. “She invited me to a Zoom meeting to apologize,” says Haq-Lukolyo. “ And her apology was that her dad was raised by black women, and that she likes black people, but there was no sincere apology. And I felt personally offended for a second time by her because if that was an apology to her, it's just kind of sad, because it had nothing to do with me and [she was saying that] just because I was black.”
Originally born in Wisconsin, Haq-Lukolyo has lived all around the world, including Texas, Uganda, and then back to Texas to her present home in Pearland, a Houston suburb. For now, Haq-Lukolyo is focusing on developing her writing abilities and spending time on other interests like drawing and music. She is also part of a competitive dance team.
This episode contains music by Geovane Bruno.
- Ambrose, S. E. (2002, November). Founding Fathers and Slaveholders. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/founding-fathers-and-slaveholders-72262393/
- Anthony, C. (2017, November 26). How slave labor built and financed major U.S. cities. Salon. https://www.salon.com/2017/11/26/how-slave-labor-built-and-financed-major-u-s-cities/ Constitutional Rights Foundation. (2017). How Should We Judge Our Nation’s Founders? CRF-USA. https://crf-usa.org/images/t2t/pdf/HowShouldWeJudgeOurNation.pdf
- Haq, H. [@heather_haq]. (2021, January 4). Speaking up takes courage. Imagine being 10 yrs old & bravely making a contribution to your 5th grade history class [Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/heather_haq/status/1346207913040371714
- Haq-Lukolyo, I. (2020, December). Muted: Fifth Grade Conversations About Slavery. Skipping Stones. https://www.skippingstones.org/wp/2020/12/21/muted-fifth-grade-conversations-about-slavery
- Iris Haq-Lukolyo and Dr. Heather Haq, interview by author via Zoom, December 9, 2021.
- Lane, A. (2009, January 19). The legend of slaves building Capitol is correct. Politifact. https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2009/jan/19/nancy-pelosi/legend-slaves-building-capitol-correct/
- McShane, J. (2021, February 23). She’s the only Black kid in her fifth-grade class. She spoke up when slavery wasn’t included in a lesson plan. The Lily. https://www.thelily.com/gdpr-consent/?destination=%2fshes-the-only-black-kid-in-her-fifth-grade-class-she-spoke-up-when-slavery-wasnt-included-in-a-lesson-plan%2f%3f
- White House Historical Association. (n.d.). Did enslaved people build the White House? WHHA. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/questions/did-slaves-build-the-white-house