Black history is bigger than slavery. We should teach kids accordingly

Too Many Black Students Aren’t Learning Their History in Schools
January 4, 2020
We Can’t Teach Black History in Isolation
January 6, 2020


It’s time to broaden what is considered important to teach our students so that the default history of America isn’t a white, male one

I spent many years as a history teacher in New York City hearing questions like: Did black immigrants come through Ellis Island? Were there black cowboys? Where did the free black men in New Amsterdam live? The answers weren’t in the curriculum; they apparently weren’t deemed important.

According to the National United States History Content Standards for Grades 5 -12, the only time content teaching requirements about African Americans show up is when discussing slavery, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, treating the black experience as a separate entity – only worth noting in climatic moments of social change.

But to give kids a fighting chance of living in a more equitable society, we have to change the way we teach them. Students shouldn’t have to ask me, Where are the black people the rest of the time?

In my own classroom, I added lessons about Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance, but that wasn’t enough. Black Caribbean immigrants did come through Ellis Island. Black cowboys did run huge cattle ranches in the west. Free blacks in New Amsterdam did own property – and they did vote like all other land-owning men. They were allowed to bear arms. These facts mattered to both my black and white students alike, and most kids their age probably weren’t hearing them.

We need to broaden what is considered important to impart to our students so that the default history of America isn’t a white, male one – a view reflected in the racially-biased policing, violent hate crimes and the absurd resistance to permanently bringing down the Confederate flag, which all plays out beyond the classroom daily. Revising our vision of what constitutes “black history” is especially crucial now; in 2012, 50% of American children born were minorities. It’s time to stop propagating the myth of a white America as the only true and dominant one of our past and present.

Teachers are going to ask: what about state exams that students need to pass to keep schools accredited? How can we incorporate more information and still teach the content the tests ask of us? But making history more inclusive isn’t in radical opposition to testing standards, especially as we shift to the new Common Core curriculum that emphasizes skill-building over content.

We teach about the 13 colonies anyway; we should include information about the first hero of the American Revolution, a black man, Crispus Attucks. We teach about Ellis Island already – we should incorporate the stories of the black immigrants who chose to come here. We teach about the Great Depression, but the photographs, songs and diary entries seldom include African Americans. And their absence reinforces the idea that white stories are the story. Every year schools, websites and publishers make choices about how to update this material anyway, and building a more complete vision of our history should be at the forefront of their priorities.

Puerto Rican, Asian and female American students all sense the absence of their cultural identities too. But by creating stronger and more inclusive materials, a richer picture of history can emerge. Otherwise, we are privileging a strictly white history peppered by “minority” movements – and that is a very incomplete picture of America.

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