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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Explore the Collection

We are not a historically mature society until we acknowledge that everyone’s history matters. In this special collection, a slate of Black history researchers and educators help lead us down that road to historical maturity and LaGarrett J. King offers practical resources for improving Black history instruction.

Social Studies Opinion Black History Belongs in Early Elementary School
Here’s how to integrate Black history into the early elementary school curriculum—and why you should.
Wintre Foxworth Johnson
4 min read
Illustration of a young Black girl raising her hand in class.
Xia Gordon for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion We Don't Teach Enough About Black Fear in U.S. History
Here’s what I learned researching social studies standards: Teaching about Black fear drastically challenges popular narratives of U.S. history.
Brittany L. Jones
4 min read
Illustration of a low perspective view looking up inside a massive cavern with an ominous shadow ahead.
Xia Gordon for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion Africana Studies Can Save Education—and the World
The goal of our dominant education framework is to produce workers, not whole, self-actualized human beings. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Ismael Jimenez
4 min read
Illustration of the map of Africa casting a shadow on documents and opened books.
Xia Gordon for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion The Five Questions for Building Your Black History Program
Schools and districts must do better to highlight the importance of dedicated Black history instruction.
LaGarrett J. King
6 min read
Illustration of black faces looking out from behind vibrant blooming flowers.
Xia Gordon for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion How to Teach Black History: A Resource List
Here are some books, websites, databases, and podcasts to deepen your students’ Black history knowledge—and your own.
LaGarrett J. King , Greg Simmons & Dawnavyn M. James
5 min read
Illustration of a pair of hands gently holding a vase filled with vibrant red flowers.
Xia Gordon for Education Week

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies What the Research Says Oral History Offers a Model for How Schools Can Introduce Students to Complex Topics
Community history projects like a curriculum in Memphis, Tenn. can help students grapple with issues like school segregation, experts say.
4 min read
A group photo picturing 12 of the Memphis 13.
A group photo of 12 of the Memphis 13 students.
Courtesy of the Memphis 13 Foundation
Social Studies How These Teachers Build Curriculum 'Beyond Black History'
A pilot to infuse Black history and culture in social studies is gaining ground in New York.
4 min read
Photograph of Dawn Brooks-DeCosta at Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School in the Bronx.
Dawn Brooks Decosta, pictured on Oct. 2, 2020, is the deputy superintendent of the Harlem Community School District 5 in New York. Its 23 schools piloted units of a curriculum developed in collaboration between local educators and the Black Education Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College.
Kirsten Luce for Education Week
Social Studies Q&A Here's How AP African American Studies Helps Teachers 'Get Students to Think'
Ahenewa El-Amin in Kentucky is teaching the second year pilot of the College Board's new course set to officially launch this fall.
4 min read
Ahenewa El-Amin leads a conversation with students during her AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Ahenewa El-Amin leads a conversation with students during her AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Social Studies What Students Have to Say About AP African American Studies
Students at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., share their takeaways from the pilot course that officially launches this fall.
5 min read
Nia Henderson Louis asks a question during AP African American Studies class at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19, 2024.
Nia Henderson-Louis asks a question during AP African American Studies at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on March 19.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week