Can We Continue to Ignore Our Black History?
“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” —Desmond Tutu
The United States has a grim history of underrepresenting and inaccurately portraying African American history in schools. A 2015 report conducted by the National
Museum of African American History and Culture and Oberg Research found that while most teachers acknowledged the importance of teaching Black history, only
8 percent or 9 percent of history class time in US schools is devoted to the subject.
Additional research found that students across the US were familiar with monumental figures such as Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks,
but that in a majority of states, students often receive Ds and Fs when tested on the Civil Rights movement. Forgotten are luminaries like Congresswoman Shirley
Chisholm and deplorable incidents like the Tuskegee experiment.
The history of African Americans begins on the African continent where diverse empires thrived for thousands of years and traded gold, ivory and salt with people
from other civilizations. But in the majority of classrooms — K-12 across the U.S. — students learn about the African American heritage starting with the
enslavement in the U.S. colonies, a system that erases the identity of the enslaved and continues to treat them as property.
“Those that populated the colonies were free people from communities in Africa with large scale civilizations that had tax systems, irrigation systems, universities
— they came from civilized nations that were advanced,” said Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, a professor of American history at the University of Texas at Austin. “That’s
where the curriculum should begin, that's the biggest omission from my perspective. It’s an erasure of culture and heritage so that identities of African Americans
for some are that of slaves and those fighting for their freedom.
“The time is always right to do what is right.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
That starting point is just part of the problem in the way the American education system addresses Black history, according to experts. The system also minimizes
the gross violence Black Americans faced after the Civil War, and over-simplifies the Civil Rights movement. As a result, many Americans are taught little about the
history of systemic racism and the many contributions of Black people to America’s economy and the democratic system.
Furthermore, historians and educators say classroom lessons do not explain that white politicians continued to pass laws after the abolition of slavery that
prevented Black communities from thriving. The segregation laws, known as "Jim Crow," relegated African Americans to the status of second-class citizens in post-
Reconstruction America, preserving a system of racial apartheid that dominated mostly the southern and borders states between 1877 and the mid-1960s, but also
impacted Black people living in the North. Black citizens were denied the right to vote, were not allowed to attend the same schools as white people and could not
rent or buy real estate in white neighborhoods. Meanwhile, white citizens, who felt threatened by the rise of Black communities during Reconstruction, unleashed a
wave of terror on their fellow countrymen — incidents that have been minimized or ignored in textbooks.
Experts have been calling for a major overhaul of the K-12 curriculum for years, so that Black history, which is vital to understanding American history, is better
integrated into mainstream U.S. history classes and that there are courses designed and specifically devoted to the African American experience.
There are school districts that already mandate the teaching of African American history or offer it as an elective, but the curriculum, which is supposed to delve
much deeper into the Black experience than a standard U.S. history course, often does not humanize the African American experience. And while there are
thousands of teachers who want to teach a much richer and more complete history even though it is not in the standards, many more do not have the training or the
time to incorporate it into their teaching, experts say. While progress continues to be made, there needs to be a shift on the national level to contextualize the Black
experience in the U.S., so that students see how it relates to issues of police brutality and systematic racism Black people still deal with today. Teachers will have
to stop thinking of their students as students and start thinking of their students as citizens. Think of them as future police officers, judges, lawyers, and doctors.
If we leave out histories and leave out knowledge of our country, particularly of non-white people, then how will those citizens become good citizens when they
become adults? How will they be able to understand half of the population they are serving?
“A man without knowledge of himself and his heritage is like a tree without roots.” — Dick Gregory
“How would you punish this slave?” ~ A February 2021 test question, presented to public school sixth graders
as a test question, in Sun Prairie, WI.
Recently, our community has been receiving National news coverage we do not need. NBC news reported a
story about, a Sun Prairie, WI teacher, now on paid administrative leave, after a lesson on ancient
Mesopotamia which included the question, “A slave stands before you. This slave has disrespected his master
by telling him, ‘You are not my master!’ How will you punish this slave?” The Black mother who first brought
the offending lesson to public attention said she was “shocked” and angered when her sixth grade son
showed her his social studies class assignment. She was even more surprised when, initially the school
opted to do nothing about it.
My daughter is upset and I have been contacted by family and friends with, “What’s going on up there?”
Needless to say, I threw out my original article with the devil’s advocate approach of “Do We Still Need Black
History Month?” The following quote accurately represents how I felt.
“The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.” —Maya Angelou
Let’s start with the fact that, Black history is American history, but it is not treated as such. It is sectioned off
like the VIP section in the club, only without the VIP treatment. Yes, we have Black History Month which is
relegated to just one month. In textbooks, Black history facts — the vast and rich tapestry of the history of
Black life in America — are reduced to the same lessons about slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. Those
things will always be important, but they are not the whole story.