I am a white man. I am a part of the historically oppressive population responsible for the establishment and continuation of a white supremacist patriarchy.
I am also an elementary school teacher. My drive to be an educator is grounded in a desire to be a part of reversing the oppression that my ancestors promoted and redistributing the privilege I benefit from. Each day, I am faced with opportunities to shift the needle in small ways. I often miss opportunities or make missteps, but it is my hope that through the stumbling, I am impacting the opportunities and consciousness of all of my students, regardless of race, economic resources, or family structure.
January 15th was our national holiday recognizing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Next month is Black History Month. As I reflect on this past week, and prepare for this coming month, I want to be sure that I prepare lessons, activities, and discussions for my students that honor Black History without reinforcing narratives promoted by white supremacists over the past 500+ years.
This series of blog posts will document the process I go through as an educator as I attempt to achieve the goals listed above.
Step 1: Educate Myself, Recognize Blind Spots
In 1915, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a black historian and advocate, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH), in order to promote a true narrative of black history beyond the subjugation of slavery. Black History Month was originally developed in 1926 by Dr. Woodson and the ASALH, as a one week event to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans. It was expanded in 1976 to the entire month of February.
In a letter written by Dr. Woodson in 1927, he elaborates on the motivations for the establishment of the ASALH and a celebration of Black History. This paragraph stood out to me as particularly relevant to the work that we do as educators today:
“The fact is that the so-called history teaching in our schools and colleges is downright propaganda, an effort to praise one race and to decry the other to justify social repression and exploitation. The world is still in darkness as to the actual progress of mankind. Each corner of the universe has tended to concern itself merely with the exploits of its own particular heroes. Students and teachers of our time, therefore, are the victims of this selfish propaganda.”
For me, this paragraph is a good reminder that I am a cog in the great machine of American education which promotes a view of American history that celebrates the accomplishments of white people while denigrating every other population. It glosses over the human rights abuses of “manifest destiny” and “good masters” so it doesn’t make white people feel too bad about themselves or their ancestors. Additionally, it sells a version of Black History focused primarily on slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement, without sufficiently recognizing the contributions of black men and women to the establishment of institutions, the development of economic centers, the invention of scientific instruments and processes, and the promotion of the general welfare.
Additionally, as Shaun King wrote in a 2016 article entitled Why Black History Month Should Never Begin With Slavery, the timeline of Black History promoted by this narrative is problematic.
“Yes, Harriet Tubman is heroic and deserves to be highlighted, but the history of black people did not begin with her courageous efforts on the underground railroad in 1850. Africans had already been in the United States for 231 years by the time she began her efforts. Beyond that,the 246 years of American slavery represent less than 1% of known black history from around the world…
…It is a formative, emotional, psychological mistake to introduce the history of black people with them as subjugated, enslaved peoples. Yes, it’s simply inaccurate, but it actually does damage — not just to young black children, but to all children, when they are given the distinct impression that black people began as inferior subjects and somehow found their way out.”
Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, an assistant professor of educational psychology in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, responded to King’s article with this expansion, Why We Need to Change How We Teach Black History, saying,
“When the telling or teaching of African Americans’ history begins with slavery, it ignores their humanity now, just as their humanity was denied in the past. When the profound contributions of African Americans before, during and after their enslavement are recognized, then their humanity — and therefore my humanity — is undeniable, and black lives would, in fact, matter.”
Professor Bentley-Edwards final sentence is not lost on me. The implication here is that intentionally educating our children is a part of establishing the truth that Black Lives Matter. Additionally, by not teaching these profound contributions throughout history, we are reinforcing the view that Black Lives do not Matter.
Reading these reflections has pointed out a few blind spots for me. First, I have not taught pre-American Black History as a part of Black History Month. I have taught my students about the African Empire of Mali, but not of the Songhai or Ghanaian Civilizations. This study was a stand-alone unit, and not a part of Black History Month, which means it was not a part of the narrative I was teaching.
Second, my instruction around Black History has often underrepresented figures from after the 1960s. Though I have not started or ended with slavery, I have started and ended with Civil Rights Leaders like Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis. Though teaching about these individuals is obviously incredibly important, they do not sufficiently represent the vast history of black people. This year, I endeavor to expand my students’ understanding of Black History into African History, and all the way up to the present.
Third, I must continue to zoom into the stories presented about different figures, and be sure I present one of empowerment and historical fact, not the one fabricated by white supremacy. For example, I will continue to present Rosa Parks as an activist, not a tired lady on her way home, and I will present Dr. King not only as a pastor advocating for equal rights for people of color, but also as a political leader pushing against economic inequalities.
The work of anti-racism is one that must never end for us as educators. We, especially those of us who are white, must continue to educate ourselves and expand our understanding of history, psychology, pedagogy, and the white supremacy of our institutions. Our influence on the children in our care continues well beyond their elementary years. We must be intentional with what and how we teach them.