Text for Black History Course Should Begin With Pre-Slavery Era, Critics Argue

By Brenda Iasevoli — April 19, 2018 4 min read
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A text chosen for a new African-American history course in Bridgeport, Conn., high schools has kicked up a debate because it doesn’t cover the era before slavery, reports the Connecticut Post.

Last October, Bridgeport’s school board unanimously approved adding an ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement. Public high school students will be required to take either African-American Studies, Latin American Studies or Perspectives on Race to earn a diploma. The courses will be offered beginning in the fall.

The text initially proposed for the African-American studies course, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Donald Yacovone, spans 500 years of black history, from the origins of slavery in Africa up to the election of President Barack Obama for a second term. Gates is the director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African American Research, and Yacovone is an associate there.

But the text was scrapped after the school board found itself debating a question that will likely resurface as the ethnic studies movement grows and more educators push for making African-American studies as a graduation requirement: How far back into African history should courses go?

David Canton, an associate professor of history and the director of the Africana Studies Program at Connecticut College, was hired by Bridgeport Public Schools to vet the text choices and train educators who will teach the new African American studies class. He said the course should at least touch upon the early history in Africa, so that students understand that black people didn’t start as slaves. “They created civilizations where there was trade and art and culture like any other,” he said in an interview. “Students should be introduced to this history so they can start to move beyond the basic interpretation of African-American history.”

In Philadelphia, which in 2005 became the first major city to require that high schoolers take a black history class in order to graduate, the course begins with lessons about African civilizations. It now appears that Bridgeport, only the second school district to require such a course, will follow suit.

According to Canton, the board will consider From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin, a book that does begin its history in early Africa. Sauda Baraka, a former board member and long-time champion of the African-American course, made the recommendation.

Canton, who first took up From Slavery to Freedom during his studies at Morehouse College, called the book a good choice.

The question of where the Bridgeport course should begin has been debated in the past couple of school board meetings. Baraka had argued against using The African Americans in a written response to the board. “This particular book only speaks to our collective history at the onset of chattel slavery, but it is necessary to provide a perspective that predates the worst period in world history, the African-American Holocaust.”

Community member JoAnn Kennedy called the choice of The African Americans “totally unacceptable” in a recent meeting of the school board’s teaching and learning committee. “This book starts here in America,” she said, echoing the concerns of both Baraka and Canton. “We have history before starting here as slaves.” She argued the course should trace the past as far back as Egypt and Africa.

At the time, school board member Ben Walker countered that the course is meant to be introductory, and that while he respected Kennedy’s opinion, he didn’t think schools could teach the entire history of African Americans in one semester. Walker has since agreed to put the new proposed text to a vote.

Assistant Superintendent Deborah Santacapita, who led the committee that chose The African Americans, defended the choice in the meeting saying that it covers a “500-year span to the present day” and that it “encompasses many continents, and is transnational, including the experiences of all black people.”

She also pointed out that the book comes with a companion documentary on DVD and that the resources cost very little money. The price tag for the book on Amazon is $15.46, and the DVD costs $17.77. The latest edition of the new proposed text, From Freedom to Slavery, is $116.

On April 19, the teaching and learning committee will again discuss the text choice, this time focusing on From Freedom to Slavery, and send its final recommendation to the regular board of education meeting scheduled for April 23, where it will be voted on.

Ultimately Canton waved off the idea that the debate over a text should be seen as a controversy. What people have to remember, he urged, is this is an introductory course meant to give students a taste of the history, so that they know there is more to explore in college and even in graduate school. “You can only learn so much in a semester,” he said. “What we should focus on is the victory here. This is only the second school district to require a course like this. These students will graduate from high school knowing more about black history than 90 percent of their peers.”

Image: DVD cover of the PBS documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.