There was an acute feeling of shame when my eighth grade history teacher clicked on her slideshow regarding slavery in America. Instinctively, I slumped down further into my seat, palms feeling clammy, my face heating up at an alarming rate, and cast my eyes downward as she began the lecture in an overly chipper manner. The thesis of her lesson? “Slavery was moreso an ecomonic issue than a racial one.” This was the introduction to my history- an illogical fallacy accompanied by a black and white picture with black people covered in lacerations. This was how she framed the hundreds of years of oppression black people had and continue to endure to an impressionable room of children.
I had been angry before, but never in this way. My anger seemed to only heighten the confusing intersection of guilt, embarrassment, and resentment I felt. I could barely quantify my feelings, let alone articulate them to an unassuming classroom full of White kids. This wouldn’t be the last experience of its kind, nor would it be one of few. Our country was built on systemic racism, and permeates every aspect of our lives- including the education system.
Earlier textbooks portrayed Black people as uncivilized and lazy. According to the analysis of a 1934 textbook by Lawrence Reddick, Black people were even said to be content as slaves, the book saying 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 wasn’t until the twentieth century that mainstream textbooks were changed to omit explicitly racist content. In 1961, for example, efforts were made in California to integrate Black history into the educational mainstream. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, a california law passed by seven states included “laws requiring or recommending that the contributions and achievements of minority groups be included in school curricula.” This led also to the implementation of some of the earliest Black Studies programs that included their own textbooks and resources. Still, the access to these programs and resources was not universal, and this lack of universality fueled what later would be the multicultural education movement.
However, most standardized curriculums in public schools today begin with the enslavement of Black people- disregarding the hundreds of years of astute innovation and societal advancements that Black people flourished in before they were pillaged. The places from which Black people were stolen were “communities in Africa with large scale civilizations that had tax systems, that had irrigation systems, that had universities — they came from civilized nations that were advanced,” says Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, an American history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
If you’re “lucky” as a Black student, you might get a teacher who chooses to deviate from the curriculum. For instance, before going to a primarily White high school, I attended a mostly Black elementary school. My teachers went out of their way to teach students about notable figures outside of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. They sought to expand our understanding of our history and origins outside of the four words “I have a dream.” Here I learned about Ida B. Wells and Queen Nzinga. Here I learned about Basquiat and Duke Ellington, and Prince, and Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. This is how I knew that saying “slavery was moreso an economic issue” was a fallacy to begin with. And had I not been so lucky, I might not have come across that information until I was in college. Knowing about my true origins as a Black, being represented in the material I learn as a student should not be a matter of luck. I shouldn’t pray for empathetic teachers, or have to rebuild the fundamental understanding of myself as an eighteen year old. What is historically important to White people is not historically important to Black people, or any other people of color for that matter.
Nonetheless, there are many other ways, community organizations and projects that have continuously helped compensate for our lacking education system here in America. Black History museums are becoming increasingly popular due to their ability to help provide educational opportunities. The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. s an indication of the national importance of examining Black history Black history enrichment for students and teachers through activities such as Black history summer camps, lecture series, historical reenactments, and storytelling. Even mainstream movies such as The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and Selma have all been developed into some K-12 curriculums and have been made available across the country.
As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times- not only regarding the pandemic, but to the race towards the peak of political and social unrest as well- we must remember to be empathetic to the histories of others. Black history is American history, and in order to combat systemic racism we must change the systems in which we operate from the inside out. We must continue to learn in order to grow. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Kendall is a student at Dillard University. Her hobbies include poetry, songwriting, acting, dancing, and drawing. She aspires to be an English and/or Film major to further her talents and represent people of color in media through her writing.