American history education, and more specifically Black history education, is failing to meet the societal challenges of the moment. Incomplete state social studies standards and inaccurate history textbooks, along with culturally insensitive teaching methods, have allowed for generational perpetuation of misinformation and racist stereotypes about Black people. This has fueled the ignorance, hatred and racism our nation continues to struggle with today. This educational malpractice has done a major disservice to all students and severe damage to Black students.
In most schools Black history is only taught one month a year, during Black History Month. Black history is treated like a separate aspect of American history as opposed to a foundational, integral element. The Black experience in America spans 401 years and is replete with achievement and contribution that has helped shape this country. Black people were America’s first “essential workers.” The origins and economic prosperity of this country were built upon Black labor. Black people have played a central role in every era of American history since its founding. Black people have been and continue to be instrumental in pushing America closer to the fulfillment of its promise of becoming a more perfect union. However, Black history curriculum typically only focuses on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, topics that receive cursory coverage at best.
According to the report Research Into the State of African American History and Culture in K-12 Public Schools, conducted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), while teachers consider Black history to be “influential in understanding the complexity of U.S. history,” they generally only devote “1 to 2 lessons or 8-9% of total class time” to this topic.1
This reductive approach assures that what is taught is incomplete. LaGarrett King, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at the University of Missouri, Columbia, said about the study of slavery: “We don’t learn about Nat Turner and other slave-led rebellions.” And about the study of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor King states, “we learn only about his nonviolence. We don’t learn about his evolving as an anti-war leader.” “It is so important that our story is told and is told fully. That is who we really are.”2
Professor King identified 13 states that mandate their public schools teach Black history curriculum. Only three of these states mandate that in addition to learning about the African slave trade and U.S. enslavement, students also learn about the “triumphs of African Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country.” The mandate in two of these states is limited to the Civil Rights Movement.1
A recent CBS News investigation into how Black history is taught in the U.S. found that seven states do not directly mention slavery in their social studies standards, and eight states do not mention the Civil Rights Movement in their social studies standards.3
A 2017 Southern Poverty Law Center report, Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, found that there is widespread student illiteracy about slavery. Among high school seniors surveyed, 68% did not know that a constitutional amendment formally ended slavery, and 92% did not know that slavery was a central cause of the Civil War. The report attributes this lack of student knowledge to incomplete state social studies standards and inadequate teaching resources. Nearly 60% of teachers found their history textbook’s coverage of slavery to be inadequate. The history textbooks assessed only covered an average of 46% of the content that should be included in the study of American slavery and enslaved people. None of the 15 state social studies standards assessed addressed how white supremacist ideology was used as a justification for slavery.4
One of the ways ignorance of our history has manifested itself in real time, is the lack of knowledge by the majority of people in this country about Juneteenth. Had students been taught the complete story about the Civil War, why it started and how it ended, they would have learned that it took two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation for all enslaved people in Confederate States to learn they were free. As a result, there would be fewer people who just learned about Juneteenth and the significance of this date to Black people.
A 2014 Southern Poverty Law Center report, Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States, gave 33 out of 50 states—or 66% of them— a failing grade (D or F) in their coverage of the Civil Rights Movement in their social studies standards. Only three states received an A for their coverage of essential content in their social studies standards and for providing adequate teacher resources. The assessments of social studies standards for the rest of the states ranged from needing more comprehensive content to not covering essential content at all.5
In some cases, what is taught is incorrect. A comparison of middle school and high school history textbooks used in California and Texas by education writer Dana Goldstein highlighted that the content did not “deal frankly with the fact that many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners.” The history textbooks misleadingly described the trans-Atlantic slave trade as the immigration of “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” Goldstein also found that history textbooks from the same publisher customized information to accommodate school district politics, providing different content depending on whether the district was liberal or conservative leaning.6 Similarly, misinformation was uncovered in the investigation conducted by CBS News. For example, they found that 16 states still list states’ rights and other reasons, not slavery, as a principal cause of the Civil War in their social studies standards.3
According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Education, only 7% of public school primary and secondary education teachers are Black.7 Thus, in many cases what is taught lacks the appropriate cultural insight, sensitivity and perspective. White educators, who represent 80% of all teachers, “some of whom grew up learning that the was about states’ rights, generally have a hand in the selection of textbooks.”8
Few K-12 teachers “have the textbooks, understanding or comfort with the material necessary to teach about slavery.”9 Similarly, the NMAAHC report found that some teachers lack the content knowledge and confidence to teach Black history.1
As a result, what is taught can be humiliating for Black students and offensive to Black parents. This is illustrated in the CBS News investigative segment that aired on CBS This Morning, where they show homework assignments that directed students to “put a price on slaves,” “write funny captions on images of freed slaves,” or “make Black students act as slaves.”3 Other dehumanizing class activities have included mock slave auctions, directing some students to act as slaves and slave catchers, the dramatization of the middle passage with Black students tied under desks, and having students write fun slavery songs.1,4
Black history is also completely detached from African Civilization, which is fatally shortsighted. For many children, their first introduction to Black history is learning that Black people were enslaved. This sets their perception of Black people from that point forward. For many Black children, their first introduction to their ancestors is as enslaved people. This frames their perception of their own people and themselves from that point forward. Among the state Black history mandates reviewed by Professor King, only three require that their Black history curriculum begin with Africa.1
As a result, Black children are not being accurately taught about who they are and where they come from. They are not being taught about what their ancestors achieved in Africa prior to or since the first Africans arrived in America. They are not being taught about the richness and breadth of contributions their ancestors have made to this country. This ultimately leaves Black students with a diminished sense of self, compounding the damage already done due to an inability to connect their lineage back to its origins.
The reality is that most Black history is taught by Black parents or self-taught as Black students get older.8 Some Black students never get an in-depth exposure to Black history unless they are fortunate enough to pursue post-secondary studies and attend a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) or a predominately white institution with a Black Studies program.
Unfortunately, many students of other races never get adequate exposure to Black history. According to Professor King, “only about 20 percent of white students take ethnic studies classes in college.”2
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University, said “To achieve the noble aims of the nation’s architects, we the people have to eliminate racial injustice in the present. But we cannot do that until we come to terms with racial injustice in our past, beginning with slavery.”4
“Slavery’s long reach continues into the present day. The persistent and wide socioeconomic and legal disparities that African Americans face today and the backlash that seems to follow every advancement trace their roots to slavery and its aftermath. The scars of slavery and its legacy are seen in our system of mass incarceration, in police violence against black people, and in our easy acceptance of poverty and poor educational opportunities for people of color. Learning about slavery is essential if we are ever to bridge the racial differences that continue to divide our nation.”4
It is time for the void created by not truthfully and thoroughly teaching about slavery and the full spectrum of Black history to be filled with the robust curriculum that our children deserve. If we are ever going to heal this nation, we must start by telling children the truth and teaching them the truth about America’s original sin, white supremacy and systemic racism.
Young people from all ethnic groups and backgrounds are currently in the streets, during a pandemic, protesting every day, in every state for racial justice. They have demonstrated the capacity to understand and deal with the complexities of racism. These brave young people have been joined by many white allies, who also have demonstrated a capacity to understand and deal with the complexities of racism. So it is past time for the white adults who control the educational system in America to summon the courage and rise to this occasion.
It is way past time for those in control of education in this country to address this systemic failure and provide our students with a 21st-century Black history education. First, they can start by taking the responsibility to accurately educate themselves. Second, they can commit to teaching all children the real and complete story of America’s founding and continued failure to extend to Black people the equality and unalienable rights promised in the Declaration of Independence. They can teach students about the systemic racism that is endemic to this country, in context, and provide them with the appropriate tools to process the information.
It is way past time to develop national PreK-12 Black history standards that mandate all schools teach the truth, consistently and thoroughly, year-round, across all 50 states.
It is way past time to bring the reprehensible practice of writing history textbook content to accommodate political ideology and willful ignorance to an end. Either you believe in accurately educating children or you condone lying to them.
The argument we are making is that centuries of lying to students has not served this country well. The fact that we are still debating the merits of the Confederacy, in this country, in the year 2020, clearly illustrates the intellectual catastrophe that has been caused by whitewashing history and avoiding our past. This moment demands—and our students deserve—comprehensive Black history standards and curriculum that will allow us to reach a common level of understanding of the past so we can start to heal and move forward.
Finally, it is our belief that stories that reflect the history of African descendants of the enslaved, given the unique complexities of the subject matter, are best told from a Black perspective. Most recently, this was demonstrated by the revelatory nature of the narrative in the critically acclaimed The 1619 Project, published in 2019 in The New York Times Magazine. Black educators and historians must write the new standards and develop the new curriculum and, most importantly, must be hired to teach our history.
Research shows that when Black students have Black teachers, they are less likely to become victims of implicit bias and low expectations. Their reading and math testing scores increase, they are less likely to be suspended or drop out of school and more likely to aspire to attend college. White teachers were shown to be 40 percent less likely to predict their Black students would complete high school, and 30 percent less likely to believe they would graduate from a four-year college program compared to the assessment of the same students by Black teachers. 10
Research also supports that having a teacher of color is beneficial to all students.10
Black history is American history. Learning about the richness of Black history and the contributions Black people have made to this country benefits all children.
So instead of hiring more police to terrorize Black neighborhoods, how about hiring more Black educators to teach our history and help heal the nation.
Time’s up for making excuses.
To join us in demanding that your federal government take urgent action to change this situation, please sign our Color of Change petition below.
Loreen Dyanne – Co-Curator
Pamela Thomas – Co-Curator
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