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Learn Black History Before You Teach Black History

As the end of Black History Month 2021 draws to a close, I am reflecting on what I have learned about teaching Black History. Black History is a topic that has become more and more important to me, the more I learn about it. As a Black Male Educator, I am a fairly rare breed, and I believe that I have an obligation to contribute to the education of others about this very important but often neglected topic. Like you, I received a poor education when it comes to Black History. And this is alarming to me because I received a very rich public education. I was blessed to go to better than average schools in a small town of about 10,000 people. My education prepared me well for college- to the point that college at the University of Georgia seemed like a continuation of high school. I never dropped a class because of difficulty because my K-12 education actually set me up for success (although, I almost dropped a Spanish class, but that’s a different story). Until lately, I thought that I not only had a “good” education but a well-rounded education. Then, I started teaching a Black History course, and I realized I was not well educated on the subject, but rather undereducated. And this from a Black educator. Sad.

As educators we mostly rely on what we already know and the textbook or other materials to teach our students. I find this method works rather well for many subjects. For example, when I taught my third graders parts of a whole. I used the materials provided by the school, expertise of my academic coach, and my own knowledge, and I believe I had a pretty successful unit, with all of my students understanding the concepts from a fair to exceptional degree. Naturally, I used the same techniques when it came to topics of Black American History. Therein lay the problem. The materials that I was given were sorely lacking, only covering the most covered people and events for the last decades (Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, March on Washington, etc.) The expertise of others matched my own because we were taught the same topics (Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, March on Washington, etc.) Therefore, I, my colleagues in education, and our students were left to believe that’s about the totality of Black History education.

Then, I began to develop my own curriculum about the subject, and I was utterly dismayed at what I had been taught, and most importantly, what I had been teaching! Here are a few things I learned:

1. Black History is American History

I started teaching a course called “Black History is American History” because I heard a journalist make the comment on television during the Black Lives Matter protest in the summer of 2020. It instantly made sense to me, and I wondered why we present Black History as if it is separate and apart from all of American History. In other words, we should not teach Black History only during the month of February or when the “standards” tell us to teach “Black History.” How many of us teach that the first casualty of the American Revolution was that of a Black man? It’s sort of hard to teach that, if you are not aware of that. Also, how many of us show pictures of those brave soldiers in the American Civil War, and 90% of them are drawings of white soldiers only? When in reality over 180,000 Black soldiers fought for their own freedom and that of the slaves that were still in bondage. The point is, there are a lot of important contributions from Black Americans that should be taught with American History, and not as an entirely different subject.

2. There’s Always More to the Story

There’s always more to the story. Always. This is especially true when it comes to Black History because we remember the old adage, “History is written by the victors.” For too long, Blacks have not been the victors. From their oppressed position in American Society, they were not allowed to write too much of the history, and that’s a problem when we are seeking to educate our students on actual historical happenings and not fantastical or biased accounts of history. We, as educators, should make a concerted effort to tell the story from all perspectives and be particularly aware of the fact that Blacks would have a different perspective from those that were allowed to record history at the time. I for instance was always taught that Malcom X was radical and extreme. Which this may still hold true in most people’s mind, but I taught this without knowing what he said or did that was radical or extreme. When I researched the man, I realized that his more extreme ideas derived from a more extreme version of racism that he experienced (i.e. his father killed by white supremist, his mother driven to insanity from the ordeal, etc.) As teachers, we should teach not just what we learned from others or from a textbook, but what we’ve learned from researching the issues, people and events ourselves.

3. Black History is often covered up and whitewashed

It was the gospel truth until it wasn’t. I had been taught, so I taught my students that when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, the demand for cotton exploded and more slaves were needed to plant and pick more cotton. The only problem with this is Eli Whitney’s slave most likely actually invented the first cotton gin and Eli Whitney improved it and took credit for it like dozens if not over a hundred other white Americans at the time. Remember, the oppressed and underprivileged often make history, yet the empowered often writes it. As teachers, we should desire to teach history not propaganda or myths. It is important to note that thousands and thousands of Black Americans fought in the European and Asian theaters to defend democracy abroad while they were denied it in their own country. In America’s fight against Nazism, how many teachers point out that Jesse Owens was more than a swift runner, but he actually aided in putting a nail in the coffin of Hitler’s superior race mantra when he won gold medals in the 1936 Germany election. Indeed, we have video evidence of Hitler looking on as Owens demonstrated before the entire world that all races truly are equal and the German people chanting “O’vens! O’vens! O’vens!” Let us remind students that these accomplishments were no less significant than the White generals or soldiers who worked to overcome the evils of the holocaust and the big lie that gripped Europe and especially Germany at the time.

4. It’s really important

The reasons that teaching a complete and thorough Black History is important is more evident as the country ages. The more effectively we teach the contributions of Black Americans, the more “American” they will become in the minds of our students. We need an electorate that understands this country was quite literally built by Black Americans as well as other races. Moreover, when students learn Black History they become more revolted by racism and bigotry and more passionate about being a part of and creating a more diverse, equitable society for all.

Want to hear more? Check out this podcast episode on the same subject called, Black History is American History.

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