Early in 1971, my sixth-grade class at Mosby Middle School in Richmond performed a play based on a 1951 science fiction story by Ray Bradbury. “The Other Foot” depicts future African Americans, despairing of ever being treated equally on Earth, establishing their own colony on Mars. Years later, wars make Earth uninhabitable, so the surviving Whites also rocket to Mars. I played the White refugees’ spokesman. If the earlier colonists would take us in, I offered, we Whites would do the dirty, low-paying jobs and suffer all the indignities of second-class citizenship, just as Blacks had on Earth. In keeping with post-World War II racial optimism, a sweet old Black man steps forward and tells us Whites: You can stay, and we are not going to treat you the way you treated us but the way you should have treated us.

The reason I booked that role was that my sister Anne and I were among only a handful of White kids at Mosby, which had been nearly all Black until a federal judge desegregated it the previous year.

“The Other Foot” has been on my mind ever since the death on Oct. 28 of my father, Linwood Holton, the former Virginia governor who was best known for complying with the desegregation order — and even more so after Glenn Youngkin was elected governor on Nov. 2 promising to protect schoolchildren from uncomfortable conversations about race.

My Black teacher’s decision to have me play the White man in “The Other Foot” would appear to be just the sort of diversity, equity and inclusion exercise that candidate Youngkin vowed to protect White children from. Yet far from making me uncomfortable, the story’s message that people who had suffered so much could still somehow forgive left an indelible positive impression on me. And numerous other incidents during my three and a half years as a racial minority likewise convinced me that one of the biggest beneficiaries of school desegregation was me.

I wonder what Youngkin and the supersensitive White parents who helped elect him would have thought of the White Mosby teacher who directed another play I was in. The people who scream at school boards frequently brandish the famous “color of our skin” line from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to demand that teachers pretend such differences do not exist. But my drama teacher needed to group his predominantly Black cast by hue so everyone would get the appropriate makeup. He did it in such a beautiful and affirming way, taking his categories from the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem Sweeties”:

Walnut or cocoa,

Let me repeat:

Caramel, brown sugar,

A chocolate treat.

Molasses taffy,

Coffee and cream,

Licorice, clove, cinnamon

To a honey-brown dream.

Many of my Mosby friends were poor. The voters had temporarily placed my family in one of the finest mansions in Virginia. Visiting each other’s homes was akin to Bradbury’s characters’ trip to Mars — the first time, that is. After that, we were just kids horsing around. Once, while I threw water balloons with Black friends in front of their home, a busload of White kids drove by, and several yelled at me, “White cracker!” Assuming they meant I had cracked the color line, I took it as a compliment.

In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace had made a big show of standing in the doorway of a building at the all-White University of Alabama to try to keep Black students out. In 1970, on the first day of school desegregation, Dad deliberately staged a counter-image: He escorted my sister Tayloe into the previously all-Black John F. Kennedy High School. Like most of integration’s beneficiaries, Tayloe became aware of cultural differences — but also of her ability to bridge them. As a cheerleader for Kennedy, she enthusiastically learned one of the sillier of her squad’s chants: “Sardines, mmm! And pork and beans!” Dad’s term as governor ended in January 1974, and the family moved back to Roanoke — all but Tayloe, who got our parents’ permission to remain in Richmond to graduate with her friends.

My other sister, Anne, attended Open High School. For one assignment, after a few days’ digging at the state library, Anne brought home a list: the names of the human beings one of our not-so-distant ancestors had owned. It was a sobering moment for the entire family — and seemingly just the sort of truly educational assignment from which White students will be protected during the Youngkin years.

Once, in the locker room at Mosby, a kid I didn’t know picked up my Spiro Agnew watch, which I had recently shown to Spiro Agnew, and took off with it. I followed him until I spotted an assistant principal, who took it back. Yet most of my bad experiences in Richmond were not with African Americans but with the white supremacists who had fought so long to keep us apart.

On April 1, 1970, U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. had ruled in favor of Black parents seeking to desegregate Richmond’s schools. During the summer, as school officials scrambled for ways to evade the order, a White group calling itself Save Our Schools leaned on Dad to join the resistance. One day a caravan of hundreds of cars brought him letters, which they dropped in a large and colorful box at the opposite end of Capitol Square from the Governor’s Mansion. As the organizers had hoped, the caravan drew TV cameras. The cameras in turn attracted me. One protester, having given up on persuading Dad to uphold segregation, had taped a big sign to his car: “Impeach Governor Holton.” I asked one of the leaders what “impeach” meant, and without batting an eyelash, he said, “Pray for.” When I found out he had lied to me, I was furious.

My Mosby experiences came back to me in 1982, when I entered Duke’s history graduate program. Seeking a dissertation adviser, I was, like many in my cohort, drawn to Peter H. Wood, a pioneer in the study of early African Americans. Most of my research focuses on the roles that enslaved and Indigenous people and women of all ranks played in the American Revolution.

Fifty years after my parents enrolled me at Mosby, I am saddened to see politicians like Youngkin build their careers on protecting White schoolchildren from having to talk about issues like slavery and racism. I was among hundreds of White kids who learned the obvious lesson that non-Blacks like me can only benefit from further exposure to this nation’s vibrant African American history and culture. We certainly don’t need to fear it.

Youngkin’s heartbreaking decision to close his campaign with a promise to save students from Black literature like Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” carried me back to my difficult early years in graduate school, when I found immense comfort in the work of Black female writers. Youngkin and his base might think women like them would have nothing to say to a guy like me, and it is certainly true that we come from opposite ends of the privilege spectrum. Yet they gave me just what I desperately needed, from the sweet solace at the end of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Color Purple” to the in-spite-of-it-all resolve of Maya Angelou’s “But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

African American history packs the same potential. Many White parents who want their kids to learn less Black history believe that its sole purpose is to make Whites feel guilty. Lord knows, there is plenty for us to feel bad about, but African American history is so much more than that.

Think of Joseph Harris, an enslaved harbor pilot in Hampton, Va., who escaped to the British during the summer of 1775 and then rescued two Royal Navy captains in two months. He will always belong, first and foremost, to African Americans. But his story is powerful enough to lift us all. Or take Harris’s contemporary, Lemuel Haynes, the son of a White mother and a Black father. In 1776, while serving in George Washington’s Continental Army, Haynes wrote an antislavery pamphlet called “Liberty Further Extended.” He opened by quoting the Declaration of Independence’s assertions that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” — and thus became the first person ever to quote what would become the declaration’s most iconic sentence. Indeed, simply by repeatedly quoting “all men are created equal,” Haynes, Benjamin Banneker and other abolitionists, Black and White, transformed the Continental Congress’s act of secession from Britain into a universal declaration of human rights. Far from feeling threatened by the Black-led transformation of the declaration, Whites ought to honor that history as one more way to celebrate our founding document.

When politicians suppress works of African American literature and history, they don’t just betray our national commitment to freedom of expression and slow our pursuits of historical truth and racial justice. They also impoverish the White kids they claim to protect.

Twitter: @woodyholtonusc