Black history is lacking in history teaching in the United States

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Image courtesy of The Altamount Enterprise Opinion

By Lauren Seliga

You sit in a grade 9 history class and learn about the American civil rights movement again. The sixth, seventh and eighth grade history classes also covered the movement. When will the American Revolution be taught? When will you discover all the achievements of white personalities like John D. Rockefeller, Susan B. Anthony or Thomas Edison? When will teachers stop using you as an example of a white colonizer just because you are the only white student in the class? You bring these concerns to the school administration and call for the expansion of white history into the school curriculum. The administration refuses to accede to your request because the school spends an entire month – White History Month – teaching students white figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus, and don’t forget the whole February day dedicated to George Washington. The administration says white history doesn’t really matter to American history anyway, so just be thankful that the school takes the time to spend a month teaching it.

It’s a reality white college students will never have to face, but sadly, it’s an experience all too familiar to black college students. If white history were treated like black history, the curriculum would have been expanded immediately to include more in-depth teaching of white history and achievement. Black History is American history, but in schools it boils down to just celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month. There is no shortage of prominent white historical figures, but how many black historical figures can you name besides Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman? The white narrative dominates our view of history so completely that the exclusive learning of the white figures does not even seem out of place to us.

The Southern Poverty Law Center surveyed more than 1,700 American social studies teachers and 1,000 American high school students in 2017, and analyzed 15 state standards and 10 American history textbooks. The goal was to understand how black history is taught in the United States and what American students actually learn. The investigation revealed:

  • Only 8% of high school students surveyed were able to identify slavery as the central cause of the civil war.
  • Less than half (44%) correctly answered that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution.
  • More than half of teachers (58%) said they were not satisfied with their textbooks, and 39% said their state offered little or no support for teaching slavery.

We conducted our own survey here at AUC with an average score of 9 out of 14, which according to the University’s grading scale would get a D (64.2%). The investigation revealed:

  • More than half (57.7%) were unable to identify how the Atlantic slave trade occurred in the Western Hemisphere.
  • More than half (73.6%) could not identify the end of the National Negro Improvement Movement because Marcus Garvey was arrested and deported to Jamaica.
  • More than half (54.7%) could not identify Jean Toomer as a prominent author of the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Almost half (49%) were unable to identify SNCC as a student non-violence coordinating committee.

Obviously, there needs to be better and more in-depth teaching of black history. In primary and secondary education, it starts with changing the state curriculum. If it is not compulsory – in other words, if it is not directly integrated into the state’s curriculum – then many teachers will choose not to teach it. Black history is not taught in the classroom because it is not even on the state curriculum. For example, in the Pennsylvania Academic Standards for History, for 39 white Pennsylvania historical figures, only four black figures are mentioned; for 18 white American historical figures, only five black figures are mentioned. The civil rights movement as an educational standard is not even included in the academic standards for the history of Pennsylvania.

In our own university, it starts with the creation of an African studies program and an expansion of black history courses. The University currently offers only two courses with a particular focus on the black community and there are no academic programs that represent the history and culture of African civilization. CUA students Myciah Brown, Sophia Marsden and countless others have worked tirelessly to change this. Their efforts have led to the creation of an Africana Study Committee that will research, design and pilot a course for the spring semester 2022.

It is imperative that we move beyond the idea that only teaching on Martin Luther King Jr. is sufficient to show the struggle, oppression, and achievements of black Americans. In the absence of black history teaching, the curriculum is lopsided and reinforces anti-black racism. Those who oppose expanding the history curriculum to include more black history may cite reasons for concern that this will further the narrative that America is a wicked and racist country or that it s This is anti-American propaganda. Former President Trump said that an expansion of black history in schools, as advocated by Project 1619, “would dissolve the civic ties that unite us.” He calls for a restoration of patriotic education, an education that leaves black history aside. Opposition to an expanded black history agenda must stop being disguised as patriotism when it is really racism.

Currently, there is an active bill in the New York State Senate that seeks to amend the Education Act to expand the New York curriculum to include history and the achievements of African Americans. If you are a citizen of New York, I encourage you to advocate for the passage of this legislation; if you are not a New York citizen, I encourage you to advocate for similar legislation in your own state by following this legislative advocacy guide created by a few students enrolled in the POL312-The Civil Rights Movement course here at the AUC. You can also expand your own knowledge of black history by reviewing this educational resource pack created by the same group.

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