By Kyrios LoNigro and Maggie Stern
Isolating Black history to a single month perpetuates the system of white supremacy that dominates this country. When Black children do not see powerful people who look like them it can be difficult to believe that they are capable of greatness. This disempowerment is worsened when Black history is restricted to slavery and not African history. As a young Latine, I too found the textbooks in my classrooms to be void of people who looked like my family. It was only when I entered college – a difficult task for someone who grew up in a poor, brown, immigrant family – that I learned that Mexican Americans were also lynched. With so many untold stories in the classroom, it is no wonder that in 2021 we are still fighting racial injustices in every corner of this nation.
As a child, the conversations I held closest were with my grandmother. One of the conversations that continues to demand attention is the conversation we had about Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. She cried for days when he was shot. ”I cried like a baby,” she said.
I heard countless stories of what it was like to be a brown woman in this country and found the perpetrators were neighbors, teachers, police, and sometimes family. Living in the south, I didn’t realize how many words that I heard on a daily basis were slurs meant to hurt and degrade my family until I was older. Many of us who come from non-white backgrounds have heard these stories and slurs time and time again.
While we have spent the last year protesting racial violence and inequities, the fight for equality is not new. W. E. B. DuBois co-founded the Niagara Movement in 1905 due to the failure of both the legislative and judicial branches to secure civil rights for African Americans. Shortly after, the NAACP was founded. The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013 with the acquittal of the man who killed Trayvon Martin. Most well known is the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, but crucial information about that time is ignored, including the efforts by the FBI to sabotage the movement. They refuse to tell us about the murder of Fred Hampton and other Black Panthers. They refuse to tell us that MLK, the only powerful Black man that they usually teach about, received a letter from the FBI coercing him into suicide. They refuse to tell us of the bombing of a home in Philadelphia inhabited by Black organizers. In Texas, a state that doesn’t require that Black history be taught annually, this refusal leaves many questions unanswered: Would we still inherit the same level of generational trauma and poverty if we had comprehensive and historically accurate teachings? Would we still be marching for our lives?
One of the first figures I remember looking up to was Malcolm X. We were never taught much about him in school except for that he was violent and MLK wasn’t. I never learned that MLK found the white moderate to be one of the largest barriers to progress and that one of his most powerful quotes was “a riot is the language of the unheard”. We were never taught that King understood the links between economic and racial disparities and believed that poverty had to be addressed before we could address issues within education or housing. If we had been, we would have quickly understood the links between race and economic standing. We would have understood that people of color are kept poor in order to maintain white supremacy and reduce both our economic and political power.
Black students and other students of color do not see people like us in positions of power in our textbooks, nor do we learn about scientists, artists, or writers who look like us. We need to include figures like Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel in space, and Matthew Henson, the first man to stand on the North Pole. We need to not only spend more time learning about the Harlem Renaissance, but talk about people like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Henry Ossawa Tanner, two ground-breaking artists who challenged racism in the art world.
Many schools also teach that slavery, MLK, and Obama represent all of Black history. We are taught that white people solved the issues that they created when it was powerful people of color who marched, waged legal battles, and died for incremental and slow progress. We need to teach not just about MLK but about people like Ella Baker, a powerful organizer who was central to the growth of the civil rights movement. Teach about the Black Panther Party. Let your children know the name Angela Davis and help them to understand her cultural relevance. If you’re a person of color, tell your story in any way that you can. When speaking to my thirteen-year-old baby sister recently, she said that she wished that teachers provided their own views rather than simply showing a video. Be active in the conversation with your students, friends, family, and community.
The refusal to teach Black history threatens the power of young people of color before they have a chance to build it. History should not whitewash the past or paint those who came before us in an over-flattering light. History should be a vessel for truth and empowerment. In omitting key information and experiences, the curriculum also isolates children of color and perpetuates systems of oppression. Educators can still make their classrooms more racially conscious as we work to make permanent changes to the curriculum at the State Board of Education.
White supremacy will continue to dominate this country and its people until we educate ourselves and demand justice. Until our children have the knowledge and tools necessary to advocate for themselves, people of color will continue to be disempowered and disenfranchised. Dismantling systems of oppression can begin with a more comprehensive Black history education.