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This is America: Teach Black history from Black perspectives

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/29/2021 N'dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY
text: Museum Director Lonnie Bunch stands in-front of one of the engravement walls of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. © Paul Holston, AP Museum Director Lonnie Bunch stands in-front of one of the engravement walls of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

For a long time, I took Black History Month for granted.

Looking back, I realize that a huge portion of my Black history education started at home.

My mother's bookshelves (which are featured in this USA TODAY TikTok!) are filled with Black authors and texts on racism, ones that didn't always make it onto required reading lists at the predominantly white institutions I've attended my whole life. Seeing where my school was lacking, she made sure to take me to events at her work or church or in the community that celebrated a more complete Black history.

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It didn’t occur to me until I got older that not everyone had the same basic understanding of this country’s history that I did. I was somewhat shocked when I learned from a Southern Poverty Law Center report that only 8% of high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.

This revelation was worsened by insipid, annual questions about why there’s no white history month and attempts to excuse slavery and condemn the legacy of the civil rights movement, including from officials in the Trump administration. We have to do better than serving special Black History Month meals and rehashing the same whitewashed history people were taught. 

I'm N’dea Yancey-Bragg, a trending news reporter who focuses on race and diversity, and you're reading "This is America," a newsletter about race, identity, and how they shape our lives.

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A brief history of Black History Month 

Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History,” first proposed “Negro History Week” in 1926, timed for the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford officially expanded the week into Black History Month.

Negro History Week was intended to be a time to showcase everything students learned about Black history throughout the school year, not the only time it’s ever mentioned, according to LaGarrett J. King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri.

Fast forward to today and, at best, American public schools offer sanitized versions of slavery and the civil rights movement along with biographies of a handful of figures who are “platable to white audiences,” King said. At worst, they offer inaccurate or inappropriate lessons like slavery reenactments that make me cringe every February.


Video: Minnesota Historical Society Launches ‘Black History, Black Voices’ Initiative (CBS Minnesota)

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King, founding director of the CARTER Center for K-12 Black History Education, said some educators are able to use Black History Month to “disrupt the official narrative,” but many “teach Black history from a white-centered perspective.”

“We should teach Black history from Black perspectives,” he said. “We teach about Black history but we don’t teach through Black history.”

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King offered seven guiding principles for educators to explore when teaching Black history:

  • Power, oppression and racism 
  • Black agency, perseverance and resistance 
  • Africa and the African diaspora 
  • Black joy and Black love 
  • Black identities — other than heterosexual, Christian, middle-class Black men 
  • Black historical contention and the problematic aspects of Black history 
  • Black excellence

Educators point out that teaching Black history should go beyond the month of February.

“The historical contributions of Black people need to be integrated into the curriculum,” said Dionne Grayman, a staff developer at Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York City.

Before the country can move past racial harm, Grayman, who trains schools to have difficult conversations about race, said there needs to be “truth, then accountability and then maybe reconciliation.”

A good starting point is getting “an accurate understanding of Reconstruction,” the period after the Civil War, to help Americans better understand “contemporary forms of racialized violence like mass incarceration,” according to Daniel Hirschman, an assistant professor of sociology at Brown University in Rhode Island. He said it’s important to recognize the many ways racism is baked into America’s foundational systems.

“It’s definitely deeply worked into the structure of the country,” he said. “If you hear that as a critique of the country, good. It is.”

Here's what happens if we don't get this right

Failing to understand the history of race and racism and a strong desire to overlook the worst aspects of racist violence in the United States has fueled resentment toward civil rights activism, according to Hirschman. That resentment is then cultivated by groups including right-wing media and white supremacists, he said. 

Most recently, Hirschman said that despite growing pushback, he’s already seeing calls to move past the storming of the Capitol. He warned that achieving some progress, such as electing a more racially progressive president like Joe Biden, can trigger an immense backlash.

“We have to sort of assume that’s going to happen and try to work to make sure it doesn’t,” he said. 

Black History Month provides an opportunity to center the curriculum and broader public conversation on these discrepancies, but it shouldn’t be the only moment to do so, Hirschman said.

“It can’t do all the work,” he said.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: This is America: Teach Black history from Black perspectives

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