In lieu of the current Black Lives Matter movement, I have been actively trying to educate myself on issues. Through doing this, it emphasized to me how little I was taught in American public schools about Black history. There are currently no federal requirements for teaching Black history in the United States. Usually, when it is taught, it is simplified to slavery and the civil rights movement. Then in February, there is a month of fun facts about MLK and Rosa Parks sprinkled in. All of these things are integral parts of history and yet are nowhere close to a complete narrative. Black history is vital, especially now, primarily because you can’t understand systemic racism today if you don’t understand how racism has been woven through America’s history.
A 2015 study conducted by the National Museum of African American History found that, on average, only 8% or 9% of history class time is devoted to Black history, and some states neglect the subject altogether. I attended public schools in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and in all three of these states, I can confirm that the only thing I was taught was that Black history was slavery and then the civil rights movement and then everything was fine. In a small town in Pennsylvania with five total people of color, they reinforced teaching that Black history begins and ends with slavery and taught people that their ignorance is justified and that there is no need for a movement. If I can be required to take “History of Virginia” as a history credit in a Virginia public school, then I can be required to learn Black history.
To be more specific, the current history curriculum either largely ignores Black history or misrepresents the subject. For example, commonly in history textbooks, Black people are described as docile, uncivilized and lazy.“ In a 1934 history textbook analysis by Lawrence Reddick observed that Black people were portrayed as being content as slaves; they liked to “sing, dance, crack jokes and laugh; admired bright colors, never in a hurry, and [were] always ready to let things go until the morrow.”
It is fundamentally vital that children are taught Black history all year. The concept that Black history should be a separate category is confusing and problematic because Black history is American history. We are so reinforced with this idea that American History begins with white Europeans and was controlled by white Europeans, and Black history ended when the civil rights movement ended. History is constantly changing and evolving, and yet, American public school curriculums are drained of any progression, changing points of view or history beyond that of a white America.
New Jersey has a law called “Amistad law.” It is named for the rebellion of enslaved Africans who rose up against their captors on a ship to the New World. In New Jersey, schools are required to teach Black history. However, the schools are required to teach “Black History: The Horrors of Slavery.” Also, the district gets to decide how they teach and what they teach for black history required topics. So it is highly probable that this required black history is not being taught in a proper or effective way.
Through my process of reeducating myself, I came upon an article about a group of high school students who took a field trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. One of the students, Alana, expresses in the article something that struck me.
“We are not just slavery, we are not just the civil rights movement,” said Angel Amankwaah, who didn’t attend the trip but helped lead the charge for an African American studies class. “We are not just MLK and Malcolm X. We are the Mali empire and the Ghanian empire. We are Black Wall Street. We are the Harlem Renaissance. We are beautiful and amazing things.”
I highly encourage everyone reading this to rethink what they were taught and relearn what they weren’t. There is a vast amount of American history that has been plucked out and hidden for generations to reinforce the systematic racism that has built up America for so many years.