How do we teach black history in the future?

OPINION - Since the classroom and textbooks have been an imperfect way of educating students about African-American history, the future may lie elsewhere...

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Black History Month. Today, it’s taken for granted that February is when we celebrate the history and accomplishments of African-Americans. Yet, Black History Month represents only the opening salvo in an ongoing fight to include African-Americans in American history, both in the classroom and in society. And that fight shows no sign of being settled anytime soon.

For decades after the Civil War, African-American history was defined by the idea that ex-slaves came from a sort of nothingness. For centuries, blacks in the United States had been considered property, beasts of burden, so how could these “objects” have a history? As a result, African Americans were typically defined through the eyes of other, usually the writings of whites, particularly Southern white historians, who depicted blacks as happy, mindless slaves.

At the dawn of the 20th Century, W.E.B. DuBois, the great African-American intellectual and historian, was one of the first African-American historians to attack the white hegemony over American history. DuBois tried to transform the story of African Americans from those of property manipulated by whites, to human beings who were integral parts of the American experience. But it wasn’t easy.

“DuBois, the preeminent historian of the time, couldn’t get a job,” Dr. Blair Kelley, associate professor of history at North Carolina State. Dr. Kelley is the author of Right To Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson. “But DuBois made sure that his historical work was exhaustive and that it served a purpose in the struggle (for civil rights).”

The idea of a period to celebrate black history was born in 1926, when Dr. Carter G. Woodson, noting the February birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, declared that period Negro History Week. That Americans should celebrate and take pride in the accomplishments of black people was a revolutionary idea for the time, .

Other African-American historians like Rayford Logan, John Hope Franklin and Charles Wesley, thrust forward a history that included African-Americans into the very fiber of America history. Their research and publications grew the African-American historical canon and rediscovered African-American history that had been previously ignored. But the problem is that much of this research was outside of the classroom, and any student interested in reading this African-American history had to do so independently.

Many black students did, creating even more demand to find out more about this hidden history, particular as the struggle for civil rights reached a fever pitch. Leaders like Malcolm X talked about a pan Africanism that broadened African American history from the shores of America to the shores of Africa. In 1962, longtime Ebony editor Lerone Bennett published, Beyond the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America. And the Black Power movement rekindled a black pride in all things African-American.

In November 1968, Life magazine recognized this interest in black history and commissioned a series called The Search for a Black Past. In this historical series, African-American historian John Hope Franklin wrote a series of articles about slavery rebellions like Paul Cinque and the Armistad saga, Nat Turner, and the African Americans who came to the rescue of abolitionist John Brown. This was a history unknown to the mostly white Life magazine readers.

While African-American history was becoming mainstream, American textbooks of the 50s and 60s continued to reflect a white male dominated point of view. Besides Crispus Attucks, the revolutionary hero of the Boston Massacre, most African-Americans remained scrubbed out of American history.

In the December 1968 issue of Ebony, an African-American magazine modeled after Life, the magazine ran an article titled “Black History in Schools”. It recounted an October 1968 boycott by 30,000 black Chicago area high school students, who demanded that their textbooks include African American history as part of the curriculum before they went back to classes.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, things began to change. Negro History Week turned into Black History Month, a federally recognized, nationwide celebration encompassing the month of February. African-American history was gradually added to textbooks and lesson plans and included African-American points of view for the first time. And there was the idea that in this new integrated American society, white students benefited from African-American history as much as black students.

“DuBois didn’t just write about African-Americans,” said Dr. Kelley. “He also wrote about John Brown and talked about how we needed to remember that (whites and blacks) worked together. It wasn’t bad history.”

Today, it isn’t a question about whether there should be African American history in textbooks, but how should it be taught? Should African American history be integrated within the curriculum, or should it be separated out? Over forty years after the Chicago high school boycott, teachers are still trying to figure out the right approach.
“I think it’s inclusive if we have the time to teach it all,” said Sheryse DuBose, a high school teacher in Georgia. “The problem is that students generally have 16 weeks to learn 400 years of History and means emphasizing material on which they will be tested for graduation…Working at an inner city school, I try to also emphasize the contributions made by black Americans.”

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“Honestly, it is tough to for me to fit in every topic I feel is important or just plain interesting,” Michael Denman, a high school teacher in Los Angeles. “When we are talking about the Progressive Era, for instance, I will cover DuBois and contrast him with Booker T. Washington. When it’s World War I, the Great Migration gets some attention. In my view, it is a poor approach to use a “pull out approach” because it removes the content from the context in which it happens.”

Whether black history is taught as an integrated historical lesson or as a separate topic is only one concern when talking about African-American history in the classroom. Another growing concern is who is writing the black history in textbooks, and whether that history is true or not.

Each state creates its own curriculum and defines the emphasis in which it chooses to teach black history. For example, California mandates that the historical contributions of blacks must be included in classroom instruction. But recent controversies in Texas and Virginia also illustrates that black history can be manipulated, as conservative boards in charge of approving what is taught in state schools, have been under fire for what many African Americans call a whitewashing of history.

In Texas, the civil rights movement and figures like Thurgood Marshall have been deemphasized, while in Virginia, dubious claims that “thousands” of African-Americans fought for the Confederacy, have been debunked by historians. And yet, thousands of students in both states are learning from these textbooks.

Since the classroom and textbooks have been an imperfect way of educating students about African-American history, the future may lie elsewhere. Independent research, with the aid of resources on the Internet, could provide students with a holistic view of African-American history. Avoiding classroom gatekeepers, who can manipulate black history via their own political slant, puts the power to comprehend and interpret back in the hands of students.

Dr. Jelani Cobb, author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress and an associate professor of Africana studies and history at Rutgers University, agrees.

“It will be more democratic, when you look at the resources institutions are making available. Most institutions are making their archives digital, so that if the average person wants to write a biography about Booker T. Washington, they have access to data that used to only be available to graduate students.

“Also, with the growth of applications, barriers are dropping. I also thing that in some ways, we’re returning to the past. When Carter G. Woodson was doing his research, most of the people he worked with were lay historians. Few were actually professional historians, and I think we’re returning to that.”

“History is as political as it’s always been,” concludes Dr. Kelley. “This current [youth] generation is forward focused and doesn’t always see the utility of looking at the past. But I think we need to continue to research because we still haven’t discovered everything there is to know about African-American history. And we’ll need to learn more in order to defend ourselves against people who seek to stunt African-Americans by using history wrongly.”