It is September and the beginning of a new school year for our children. I cannot emphasize enough the great need to teach black history into the classrooms.
Why is it important for schools to teach Black history?
The class fosters cultural understanding. Learning about African American history allows students who are not African American to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the contributions of African Americans to the world we live in today.
But may I suggest that, for history teachers, what Dr. King described as the “urgency of now” demands we read as much about the past as the present?
We must remember that African American history is not all about slavery, but that slavery had a profound impact and reach that continues today.
We must remember that when we do teach about historical slavery, we must teach students about the enormous impact of slavery on the story of America from its very beginnings, and when teachers wrap up units on the Civil War and Reconstruction, they can’t just ignore Black history until Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. None of us – no matter our race or the race of our students – can afford such a distorted view of history.
If we are intentional about doing the work that social justice advocates are talking about right now, we will be busy. We will struggle this summer as we get ready for fall. Lonnie G. Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian, concluded his recent statement on racial violence and division with the quotation below:
“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
Why Students Need Black History All Year
In the month of February, you will find countless articles about Black History Month. One of the many suggestions you see in those articles is that Black history should be taught all year, which is why you are reading this in September.
Carter Woodson, the founder of what started out as Black history week, hoped that one day the need for such a special designation would disappear – that one day the history and contributions of Black people would be fully embedded in our classes.
Sadly, we’re not at that point yet. How could we be when we still read stories about misguided teachers holding slavery simulations in their classrooms or asking students to identify slavery’s positive aspects? Even some politicians are calling black history ‘race theory’.
Black History Is for Everyone
Whatever the racial makeup in a school, all of our students need Black history.
Reason 1: U.S. history makes no sense without African American history.
As W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” The twenty-first century,so far, does not appear to be much different.
The color line, beginning with slavery, has informed every aspect of our history. Slavery is THE fundamental contradiction in our country’s history. Our nation’s founding principle – a dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights – is in direct conflict with slavery.
Our country was built with slave labor, we went to war over slavery, and we have not yet made good on the promissory note Martin Luther King spoke of in 1963. As Nikole Hannah-Jones (author of The 1619 project) recently asked, “What if America understood…that we [African Americans] have never been the problem but the solution?”
While our country espouses the ideals of democracy, liberty and equality, we haven’t lived up to them, and yet ironically, it is Black Americans who have been the “foremost freedom fighters” in our history. Understanding this contradiction is one of the keys towards understanding the history of the United States of America.
Reason 2: African American history intersects in every unit and period.
Even after classes get past Reconstruction, African American history continues to play an important role. The Jim Crow era, during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and the Civil Rights movements are the obvious spots, but African American history fits EVERYWHERE.
Reason 3: Our nation’s present problems with race and intolerance make no sense if we don’t know the history behind it.
Reason 4: Students like Black History
Reason 5: Black history is American history
Dr. Scott Edwin Taylor
President of The Black Heritage Museum of Arlington Virginia