Rewriting Black And Brown History, With A Little Help From Augmented Reality
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what you learned in school isn't the whole story.
By Pallabi Munsi
- Glenn Cantave works to introduce more diverse representation and narratives in school curricula, at a time when problematic statues are hotly debated in the public square.
- The twist? He’s doing it with augmented reality technology, allowing students to visualize their new history.
Glenn Cantave claims to have been a “hyper” kid — whose youth was all about his large family and his soccer obsession. But there are a couple of salient moments from his childhood in Long Island that provide clues of who Cantave, now 27, would become.
He vividly remembers the time his first-grade teacher told his class to color in an illustration of Christopher Columbus’ famous ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María. Like most American schoolchildren, he memorized the names of the boats and learned that Columbus first set sail for the so-called New World in 1492, but he didn’t hear much about the mass killing of Native Americans that followed. He remembers the teacher telling him how George Washington “treated his slaves nicely.”
What he also remembers is his first brush with immersive technology. “When I was 9, my mom bought me a VR helmet. And I was really excited about it. And I put it on, and it was super underwhelming. Just years ago, a friend introduced me to Google Cardboard and I was blown away.”
Those two threads joined together when Eric Garner was killed after Daniel Pantaleo, a New York City Police Department officer, put him in a prohibited chokehold while arresting him. “My mother took me to that protest in 2014. And that was kind of a trigger.”
Cantave’s activism now comes with an app. Movers & Shakers, a New York City-based educational advocacy group he co-founded with Idris Brewster, is rewriting Black and brown narratives into American curricula — with a little help from augmented reality (AR). His app has a catalogue of “heroes you never learn about in school” — women, people of color, members of the LGBT community, etc. Students use the app to select an underrepresented icon and then advance to doing assignments on them. Plus, they can take selfies with their chosen icon, download them and share.
Cantave acknowledges that moving entrenched systems like school boards to adopt this kind of tech is no easy task. But it’s vitally important because the young boy in him — whose family is originally from Haiti — didn’t learn anything about Columbus’ brutal legacy at his Long Island public school. It’s also why he organized a pop-up slave auction performance piece/AR exhibit and ran the New York City Marathon in chains (he still managed to break the four-and-a-half-hour mark).
All of our heroes are slave owners that would own people like myself if they were still around.
Cantave’s goal is to use AR to highlight systemic racism, tell the world “that all of our heroes are slave owners that would own people like myself if they were still around,” and “hit hypocrisy at the foundation of a lot of our institutions, our rules, our social contracts.” That’s because, Cantave believes, “if children get nuanced education while growing up, it helps them form informed decisions and choices when they grow up.”
He’s ensuring technology and history are brought together by working with communities, museums and schools. Their projects include depictions of alternative monuments and one that allows young people to experience a holographic protest. Come Black History Month 2021, he has big 5G AR programming plans that he will initiate in 100 under-resourced schools — focusing on lifting up the stories of people of color, women, and queer and trans people. It will include the launch of the Monuments Project, which allows students to create augmented reality monuments of underrepresented people — rather than the usual white men who are now finding their marble station under threat. Funded by Verizon and others, Cantave and his team are trying to raise $300,000 to get the project off the ground.
While dismantling statues of slave owners across the world gained steam this summer, following George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Cantave has been reimagining monuments and statues since 2017, when the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, drew attention to the disputed statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Soon after the deadly clashes in Charlottesville, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a review of monuments that could potentially be “symbols of hate” to determine if they should be taken down. But in January 2018, the mayor and his monument commission decided that one of the city’s most contentious — the statue of Christopher Columbus in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle — would stay up. “Reckoning with our collective histories is a complicated undertaking with no easy solution,” the mayor said in a statement.
Cantave refused to take it laying down.
So he pulled together his team of coders, artists and designers to outmaneuver the city’s decision by using his app to add digital statues of other historical figures — namely, people of color and women. Now anyone who walks by Trump Tower can see Colin Kaepernick take a knee in augmented reality. You can see Jackie Robinson swing for the fences on the former site of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. “Our vision is a ‘Pokémon Go’ for a contextualized history,” Cantave says.
In these early stages, his AR approach has seen promising results from testing in one New York school. And the concept is drawing attention elsewhere. “This sounds horrible, but we need to see what white people actually did to Black people because textbooks only tell you this much — and it’s not enough,” says Arianna LaPoint, an eighth grader at Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School in Crystal, Minnesota, just a few miles from where George Floyd was killed by police.
Douglas Flowe, an assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, believes that movements such as Black Lives Matter eventually need to be distilled down to a sustainable and mundane educational program. “I see something like the Movers and Shakers’ augmented reality concept as a part of a broader ecosystem of reevaluating the importance of African American history in American education and curricula,” Flowe says. “So it’s definitely a part of a larger kaleidoscope of the society.”
Cantave, who loves to run, is ready for another marathon of repeating his narrative over and over again, just like his idol Bernie Sanders does. Because someday, he hopes, it’s finally going to stick.
- Pallabi Munsi, OZY Author Contact Pallabi Munsi