Whether you’re teaching a Black history or U.S. history course, any teaching about Black people must begin in Africa. That is where the history of mankind, and the history of Black people in America, began. Teaching about Black people in America must start with Africa in order to understand what it means for Black people to be in America. Since The New York Times published “The 1619 Project,” helmed by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, many teachers might be tempted to start with that date. While 1619, and the era of enslavement that followed, is important, it’s even more important to remember Black history did not begin with enslavement. Black people have a culture and history that reaches back before the chains.
Beginning with the year 1619 defines Black history based on connections to—and oppression by—racist systems and people. Oppression is a part of African American history. However, starting there ignores a full and complete story that existed before Africans came to what would become the United States.
Starting with African history helps students come away with a fuller understanding of slavery and its complexities. Many texts used in schools do not meaningfully incorporate Africa, so if teachers want to bring in additional information, they will have to find it on their own.
As you are planning your lessons and thinking of ways to emphasize Africa, here are a few recommendations:
1. Start small. You don’t have to change everything in one year. Choose one topic, resource, or book to incorporate in your class.
2. Address misconceptions. For one thing, students should know that Africa is a continent, not a country. Several of the math and scientific ideas we attribute to Greek and Roman theorists actually have origins in Africa. Students should know that the 19th century European characterization of Africa as a “Dark Continent,” a separate entity disconnected from the rest of the world, began with colonization.
3. Audit your curriculum. Where does Black history start in your curriculum? How can you begin with Africa? Look at the places Africa shows up in the curriculum. Which viewpoints are included? Which viewpoints are left out?
4. Be creative. Look for music, poetry, literature, and other forms of artwork to bring African history into your classroom. Not everything needs to be a long reading or lecture. For example, in my African American history class this trimester, I only have 26 class sessions with my 11th and 12th graders. I used two of them to discuss the African origins of Black Americans. Kids watched a video about African civilizations before colonization and completed a scavenger hunt jigsaw. They wrote reflective entries for their learning journal connecting information they learned about Africa to prior knowledge and they completed a chart to document what they already knew, what they wanted to know, and what they learned. While I wish I had more class time to go into greater depth, I didn’t use the lack of time as an excuse to leave Africa out of my plans.
In recent months, debates and legislation targeting so-called critical race theory in the classroom have sparked increased attention to how we teach about Black people and their role in U.S. history, but these conversations are not new. Many students and teachers already understand the need to teach a much fuller and more complex history than currently exists. There is no way to tell a complete history of the United States, or of Black people throughout that history, without starting in the place where humanity began.
- Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy at the University at Buffalo (of which the guest editor of this package, LaGarrett J. King, is the founder) will sponsor the fifth annual Teaching Black History Conference in July. This event provides resources and networking opportunities for educators. The theme for this year is “Mother Africa.”
- Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University offers online resources for teaching about Africa in K-16 settings. This page includes a variety of resources aimed at assisting K-16 teachers with teaching about Africa in their classrooms. There’s a newsletter that includes professional development opportunities, as well as a variety of lesson plans. I have a poster from the program in my classroom that shows the scale of Africa, and learning the continent’s true size always surprises students.
- Social Justice Books, a Teaching for Change project, has a booklist of sources for teaching about Africa.
- African Studies Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a variety of lesson plans, websites, TED talks, and other resources related to the teaching of Africa.
- Exploring Africa, a resource list from the African Studies Center at Michigan State University, includes a curriculum full of learning modules and activities for teachers and students.
- Africa’s Great Civilizations is a PBS series in which Henry Louis Gates tells the history of Africa. Though the series is six hours in full, there are a variety of segments that can be helpful for students.
Coverage of race and opportunity is supported in part by a grant from Spencer Foundation, at www.spencer.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Black History Starts in Africa