How do you teach Black history at a time when the very mention of race in K-12 classrooms is considered by some states to be political, controversial, and divisive? Transparency and a focus on inquiry are key, said Rodney D. Pierce, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Red Oak Middle School in Nash County Public Schools in Nashville, N.C.
Pierce is one of the panelists for the Black History Month Kickoff Instagram Live eventfor the evening of Feb. 1, led by the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED). Based in North Carolina, the group focuses on closing opportunity gaps for all children in P-20 education, especially children of color. The Instagram panel addresses how to teach Black history today. It’s one of CREED’s #TeachingInColor social media events, which is part of their Represent! Campaign focusing on ensuring students of color are well-represented in educational settings in North Carolina and beyond.
Ahead of the panel, Pierce spoke with Education Week to offer some best practices and explain why Black history is important to teach and discuss year-round.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does Black history encompass and what does it not?
When I think about the Black history that I currently teach—I’ve taught all grade levels in middle school [and] I’ve also taught 9th grade history classes—Black history is ingrained and encompassed in every subject area.
Black history is world history. We can talk about the Moors who conquered Spain for several centuries. We can talk about Mansa Musa, we can talk about the ancient Egyptians, we can talk about the ancient Ethiopians. We can come across the Atlantic and talk about pre-colonial times, how you had indentured Black people, you had enslaved Black people, you had free Black people, all the way up until now. So there are so many different areas that you can cover. Any history of people of African descent in this world, wherever they were, is Black History in my opinion. Wherever we have been, there’s been history, our history is there.
What are best practices for teaching about Black history and what should be avoided?
I think being transparent and being blunt about it is probably the best way to go, but also knowing your audience. That’s something that I’ve had to learn this year, particularly with the political upheaval that’s going on.
So being blunt, being transparent about it, using inquiry. Providing evidence for [students], showing them primary source documents, giving them the facts of the matter, and letting them come to their own conclusion whether something was bad or good or good or bad. I think those will be your best practices.
What to avoid? I think particularly when we’re teaching the history of the people of African descent, when it comes to suffering that we have experienced, whether it’s in the systems of slavery in other parts of the world, whether it’s the system of chattel slavery here in the Americas. What to avoid would be not just to teach the quote, unquote victimization, but the resilience. Teach the resilience.
Sometimes we get so caught up in what we’ve been through that we may not put as much emphasis on the resiliency and the triumphs, despite the victimization, despite the oppression, despite the obstacles and the challenges that have been set for us.
We continue to rise, we continue to excel, we continue to triumph and perhaps not in the way we always want to, but I look at the Middle Passage. It takes a certain type of spirit and people to survive that.
Why is teaching Black history—even outside of February—important for all students?
It’s important to teach about Black history other than during Black History Month because Black history just didn’t happen during Black History Month. And the reason Black History Month was started was because Carter G. Woodson, I believe, felt it wasn’t being taught enough.
I find it particularly offensive to relegate or tie my history to one month out of the year. I’ve read something that says my history is an elective while yours is the core curriculum. That’s not equitable. And one of the things we should strive for in public education is equity. Not just along the lines of race and things of that nature, but just equity in general, equity along all lines of the social stratosphere.
And the benefit for all cultures, all students is that we can destroy some of those myths and norms that exist around Black people. One of the things I’ve said in my classroom, it’s kind of like a joke, but one of the things that has been said about Black people, people of color, is that we’re lazy. We’ve been lazy, ever since we started working for free.
Kids, I don’t know if they understand it or get it. It’s a joke but it’s not a joke. I’m trying to get them to understand that that is one of those caricatures that is thrown on Black people that’s not true. It’s simply not true.
So there’s an opportunity to destroy those myths, those stereotypes, those political creations that try to negate or paint black people in a certain light or try to make the teaching of our history offensive to other groups of people, or make it something that makes them uncomfortable in terms of the current political fiasco that’s going on. We have an opportunity to engage in this stuff, break those stereotypes, inform students and kids who may not necessarily think about certain things, and perhaps change their thinking on it to the point where they see the value in it and think it should also be taught to other people, not just other students, but adults as well. And they might go home and teach their families.
What challenges do teachers face in doing so and how can they overcome them?
The biggest challenge right now, I would think, is that the teaching of African American history in particular, in terms of our sojourn in the Americas, or in the United States, has been turned into a political minefield.
And now you have to navigate carefully what you say in the classroom in terms of what you teach. Whereas in the past you weren’t concerned about that. And it wasn’t that you were doing anything wrong in the past. It’s just this is what you teach, and this is how you teach, and now all of a sudden it’s making people uncomfortable. It’s making kids uncomfortable. But you weren’t uncomfortable a few years ago. Now, all of a sudden, because it’s politically convenient and it’s politically advantageous, now it makes you uncomfortable, or you don’t want your children to be taught it. Black children are taught about the history of other groups of people all year long, but you never asked them if they were uncomfortable learning this stuff. You never asked them how their parents felt. Now you want to go to school board meetings and raise hell and threaten people over this kind of stuff along with mask mandates.
So those are the challenges that are facing Black teachers particularly or any teacher who wants to teach a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive version of our history here in America.
The way you can combat that, I think, again, it’s being authentic and being transparent and being candid.
Letting your administrators know what you’re going to be talking about, having your lesson plans with the resources that you’re going to be using in your classroom.
Also, I think probably most importantly, is having those primary source documents, or those secondary sources. If I’m going to be teaching you about Wilmington 1898, I’m going to be using the Democratic Party Handbook of North Carolina from that year, so that you can see that the Wilmington massacre of 1898 was about maintaining white supremacy.
I’m going to show you the speech of Rebecca Felton, the first female U.S. senator, even though she served only a day, talking about lynching Black men. We’re going to use that kind of stuff to paint the picture, let you know this is how these people felt, this is what they say, these are their actual words. This is not me preaching to you or trying to tell you these people were bad people. You determine whether they’re bad people. You figure that out for yourself.
What are you hopeful for in terms of the future of Black history in U.S. education?
My hope is that more of an emphasis will be placed on place-based content as it relates to major themes of American history. If you’re teaching the history of the Revolutionary War, then you need to know who from your area enlisted and if you’re teaching students of color, you definitely need to know were there any Black men who fought in this war who were from this community? Were there any Indigenous men who fought in this war who were from this community? When you teach the history of the Civil War, we know that there were Black regiments of soldiers. Also when you talk about the history of chattel slavery, how did the slave labor contribute to the community that we live in?
It’s one thing to teach your students something that happened hundreds of thousands of miles away. It’s another thing to teach them something that happened in their own backyard. I just think that resonates with them a little bit more.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as How Do You Teach Black History Without Breaking The Law? Advice From a Teacher