Opinion
Social Studies Opinion

We Don’t Teach Enough About Black Fear in U.S. History

Here’s what I learned about fear from studying social studies standards
By Brittany L. Jones — January 31, 2023 4 min read
Illustration of a low perspective view looking up inside a massive cavern with an ominous shadow ahead.
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Of all the possible human emotions that exist, fear might be the one we least want to experience. Unless someone is watching a horror movie, going to a haunted house, or thrill-seeking, I do not know many people who wake up seeking to be scared or afraid. As a Black woman living in a world where being Black is scary enough, I certainly try to avoid situations that elicit fear. However, my work as a teacher and a researcher suggests that more attention should be given to fear—specifically Black fear—when teaching U.S. history.

Today, politicians across the country are trying—and in many states succeeding—to remove discussions of race and racism from history curricula for fear that white children will feel guilty to think of themselves as oppressors. In that political context, it’s no wonder that Black fear is still rarely taught in U.S. history classroom.

As a former high school social studies teacher and now social studies teacher educator and researcher, I never understood the role of fear in U.S. history until I decided to analyze how U.S. history standards portray emotions, with a specific focus on fear.

What I found is that Black fear is not taught in U.S. history because teaching Black fear sits in tension with the narrative that U.S. history is a story of progress. The narrative of progress in U.S. history suggests that over time, conditions have improved for everyone, and the goal of this narrative is to distance the present from the oppressive systems on which this country was founded.

To teach about Black fear in U.S. history would be to acknowledge that the events we celebrate as progress did not eradicate the foundations of anti-Blackness on which this country was built. Teaching Black fear should not be confused with Black oppression but rather an amplification of Black humanity.

In my analysis of Virginia’s United States History Social Science Standards of Learning and Curriculum Framework 2015, from the state in which I taught, fear was mentioned 12 times, and not one of those times referred to the fear experienced by Black people in our country’s history. Instead, I found that when we teach about people’s fears, what we are often teaching about are expressions of their power.

For example, when white Southerners are described as “fearing” enslaved rebellions, the standards referenced that fear as justification for implementing harsher fugitive-slave laws and legislation that severely restricted the rights of free Black Americans. Another example describes Southern states “fearing” that President Lincoln would abolish slavery. The standards referenced that fear as justification to secede from the Union. (These state standards and curriculum framework are still being used, although they are currently undergoing revisions.)

I noticed that every time the standards focused on the fears of groups of people, that fear served as both a catalyst and a justification for those groups to inflict violence. I found that in how we teach U.S. history, fear is much more than an emotional expression of fright. To possess fear is, as historian Joanna Bourke noted in a 2003 journal article, “nothing more than emotional displays of power.”

Upon further analysis, I found that this “emotional display” was only powerful when it was fear attributed to white people. Although the standards made multiple references to Black suffering, Black people were never described as fearful. This emphasis on Black suffering with the omission of Black fear strips Black people of their humanity, while simultaneously rendering them powerless.

In trying to understand why students learn about Black suffering absent of Black fear, I realized that teaching about Black fear drastically challenges dominant narratives of U.S. history, so much so that it is more comfortable to talk about the many ways that Black people suffered, instead of the emotions that suffering produced.

But Black people did fear and continue to fear. And an examination of the permanence of Black fear in U.S. history would produce a necessary counternarrative to this idea of progress.

To explicitly teach about Black fear in an historical context, we would have to understand not only what caused that fear but who.

Why do we hold up the abolition of enslavement and the signing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments as turning points in Black American life when Black people continued to fear for their lives from lynchings and other racial terror during Jim Crow? If the election of President Barack Obama supposedly solidified the country as a post-racial society, then why do Black people still fear being unlawfully killed by police today?

I would also argue that Black fear is not taught in U.S. history because it forces us to acknowledge that the existence of the 13 colonies and, eventually, the United States was predicated on inflicting harm to Black people and other historically marginalized groups.

To explicitly teach about Black fear in an historical context, we would have to understand not only what caused that fear but who. Teaching about the causes of Black fear means that we would have to explicitly name how every day white people, communities, and social groups have actively wielded racial violence to maintain power and control throughout U.S. history.

Black fear should be taught as a through line of the history of this country. When we pay attention to Black fear, we can understand how that fear served as an impetus for Black resistance movements. Attention to the pervasiveness of Black fear over the course of four centuries of history illustrates the intransigence of anti-Blackness. And, perhaps most importantly, attention to Black fear gives Black children a historical context for their present-day fear of anti-Black racism.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as We Don’t Teach Enough About Black Fear in U.S. History

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