First Person

We Can’t Teach Black History in Isolation

Young girls in front of a shop window in Harlem, 1951.
Young girls in front of a shop window in Harlem, 1951.
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In his 1963 address “A Talk to Teachers,” novelist and social critic James Baldwin cautioned that one of the paradoxes of education was that “precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.” Educated individuals, he continued, then have a responsibility to make change. Decades later, Baldwin’s sentiments are still relevant.

Education is an invaluable tool because it can, and has been, used to liberate. As teachers, we sit in powerful positions because of the daily influence we have over so many minds. It is my firm belief that one way to change societies, and ultimately the world, is to teach children to think and act differently. Therefore, it is essential that we grapple, especially when teaching black history, with racial injustice and oppression.

As an English teacher, I have worked primarily with students in urban schools, but I have also taught internationally in places such as the Dominican Republic and China. In each of those settings, I have found value in threading the experiences of people of African descent into the classroom and into dominant historical narratives, in the hopes that students will understand the importance of examining the lives of those who live, and have lived, on the margins.

While teachers today understand the necessity of acknowledging black history, for many—particularly those who are white—approaching this content can be difficult and uncomfortable. It is important that we push through our discomfort and teach our students to be critically engaged and active participants in the world. Given the racial, social, and political climate in this country, we must find ways to not only teach black history, but to grapple with it in ways that lead to deeper levels of consciousness and change.

Teach Black History as American History

For many students, their exposure to black history is all too brief. Teachers may pause during Black History Month in February to throw in a lesson about Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or the civil rights movement, while other teachers may use a current rap or hip-hop song as their homage to the debt that African-Americans continue to pay to this country.

"Black history is so much wider and more deeply rooted in uncomfortable truisms than many teachers allow space for."

This is not a good approach, as it in many ways perpetuates the system of “otherness” that pervades the experiences of black people. Moreover, this type of approach suggests that the contributions, culture, oppression, and achievements of African-Americans are not fit to be a part of day-to-day academics.

Another problem with teaching black history in isolation—and during the shortest month of the year, no less—is that the contributions and experiences of black people are not given proper treatment. This approach often results in an endless cycle of teaching the same content. All students, particularly black students, have to be able to see black people as more than the descendants of slaves (although slavery should never be left out of the equation).

When black students are not also taught about the ways that black people rebelled, resisted, and continued to love in spite of the despicable treatment they faced, they are not provided with an accurate depiction of where they came from and who they can become.

And for black girls, teaching often perpetuates a history where too many women continue to be invisible. The focus on the male inventors, politicians, and leaders often includes only brief mentions of one or two women. Rosa Parks is always portrayed as a docile woman who refused to give up her seat. Why not also examine the politics of respectability during her time and the economic withdrawal during the Montgomery bus boycott? This context reveals her true strength. Black women have long been the backbone of every good thing in this country, and we as educators must do better about incorporating them into dominant narratives.

How to Avoid Silos

Black history is so much wider and more deeply rooted in uncomfortable truisms than many teachers allow space for. So how can teachers avoid teaching black history in a silo?

We must constantly teach black history as an integral part of American history. To talk about the history of the Americas without mentioning slavery, colonialism, and the African Diaspora is to lie to students. To truly teach black history is to recognize the various forms of oppression that existed and still exist today, to show the relationship between the oppressive caste system developed during slavery and trace its development to 2018, and to teach about how the beauty and richness and resiliency of African-American culture is not separate from the pain they experienced. To teach black history is to hold up a mirror to America, as the treatment of African-Americans speaks volumes about this country’s detestable disregard for human life.

As we journey through our units of study, teachers should raise questions about the African-American experience and perspective throughout lessons across all subjects. We must teach students to be mindful of those who are silenced in texts, history, and research. A unit on the American Revolution might ask students to consider where African-Americans were, what they were doing, and more importantly, how they were being treated. And lessons around Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and the Emancipation Proclamation ought to teach students to think critically about Lincoln’s stance on slavery and the Union.

Teaching black history in 2018 means destroying false narratives of white superiority and dominance. Teaching black history today must do more than celebrate black pioneers, scientists, educators, mathematicians, musicians, and leaders. It must also create room for students to understand that all lives cannot matter if beautiful, black lives do not matter.

Teaching black history means talking about gentrification as a form of colonization and providing students with lessons and language around cultural appropriation, colorism, white privilege, and institutionalized racism.

Most importantly, teaching black history today means teaching our students to be game-changers. If black history is taught well, we can dismantle the cycle of oppression. We open the door to discuss the histories of immigrants, Native Americans, the LGBT community, Muslims, women, criminals, addicts, and others whose stories white American history books do not care to tell.

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