Teaching black history – emancipating the narrative

Guilderland is becoming more diverse, and so is its public school system. The latest figures from the State Education Department show that just under three-quarters of the students are white; close to 4 percent are black, close to 4 percent are hispanic, about 14 percent are Asian, and the rest are multiracial.

We commend the school district for undertaking diversity training and for hiring an expert in the field to guide school leaders and staff. (See page-one story.) We fervently believe that students from a variety of races and cultures learning together in classrooms led by knowledgeable and sensitive teachers is the best way to learn, and also to move forward as a society.

We commend, too, newly-elected school board President Seema Rivera, herself a Guilderland graduate, and the first person of color to lead the Guilderland School Board, for calling on the district to make efforts to attract more teachers of color and further to discuss diversity with the community.

Rivera told our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, that a friend of hers recently tweeted, “List what grade you were in when you first had a teacher of color.”

Rivera said she never had a teacher of color at Guilderland. They are few and far between.

Michelle Charles, an African American and the mother of a Lynnwood Elementary School student, told the school board this spring that, when the fourth-graders at her daughter’s school were to dress up as boys and girls from Colonial times, her daughter had asked her why her class hadn’t considered what she would have been in that era — a slave.

Charles also told the board that the only person at the school her daughter could relate to when she had concerns about race is an office secretary who is also an African American.

We realize it can be hard to recruit minority faculty, which is in short supply. But something Guilderland, or any school district, can do is carefully examine its curriculum to see that its teaching of black history is fair and meaningful. A teacher of any race, if well informed, can teach black history.

We recently did a podcast with a poet and an activist, an African American, Castina Charles (no relation to Michelle Charles), who spoke of how slavery was treated cursorily at her school. It wasn’t until she read seminal works on her own — embracing African history that predated colonial America — that she came to understand her heritage.

Black history in the United States, like Native American history, is markedly different than the history of people from other places who have come here. Waves of immigrants, starting in the 1600s, left their native lands — whether fleeing religious persecution or economic oppression — to seek a better life.

Those waves of immigrants became part of what used to be called the American melting pot and now sometimes is referred to, rather, as a tossed salad.

But African Americans were brought here in bondage and that injustice, despite a war meant to free them, has lasted for generation after generation.

New York State recognized this decades ago when it formed the Amistad Commission in 2005. The legislation said that the commission, to be led by the state’s education commissioner, was so named “in honor of the group of enslaved Africans led by Joseph Cinque who, while being transported in eighteen-hundred-thirty-nine on a vessel named Amistad, gained their freedom after overthrowing the crew and eventually having their case successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court.”

It’s an apt name if the commission  was meant to overthrow the decades of poor teaching of black history. A 2017 paper by LaGarrett J. King, published in the National Council for the Social Studies Social Education, “The Status of Black History in U.S. Schools and Society,” looks at how, through the first half of the 20th Century, social studies curriculum either largely ignored black history or misrepresented it, with textbooks typically classifying black people “as docile, uncivilized, and lazy.”

This changed with the civil rights movement as, across the United States, black students, teachers, and parents began to demand black history be taught, writes King, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, noting, “today, the legitimacy of K-12 Black history as an academic subject for schoolchildren is largely unquestioned.”

However, he goes on to cite a 2015 study by the National Museum of African American History and Culture that found only 8 to 9 percent of total class time is devoted to black history in United States history classrooms. While students are now aware of famous black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman, the Southern Poverty Law Center gave the majority of states grades of D or F for their approach to teaching the civil rights movement, with five states neglecting the subject altogether.

King notes that what is taught is sometimes “lethargic, too celebratory, and lacks complexity,” and further that teachers “may not teach Black history as much as they should because they lack content knowledge, confidence, time, and resources, and are concerned with students’ maturity levels for approaching difficult knowledge.”

New York State had a mandate with the Amistad Commission but, notes King, citizens have complained it is a mandate in name only with lack of curriculum enactment, enforcement, and financial assistance.

All of these are critical if students are to learn black history. As we read the New York State Amistad Commission’s March 2016 report, our admiration increased with each page we turned.

“In creating the Commision, the Legislature declared that all people should know of, and remember, the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the African slave trade and slavery in America, as well as the legacy of slavery and the history of racism that continued.”

What the commission sets out in its report is a history not just for black students but for all Americans, of any race, to learn from. The commission uses an “infusion” method that blends black history into the state standards for social studies. 

For example, the commission highlights these topics for fourth grade, the grade where a mother raised concerns about Colonial Day at Lynnwood Elementary School: “Students examine the colonial experience of African Americans, comparing and contrasting life under the Dutch and under the British. Students also explore why African Americans volunteered to fight with the British during the war.

“Students will investigate life as a slave in New York and the people who took action to abolish slavery, including Samuel Cornish, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Tubman. Students will research how their local community contributed to the Civil War.

“Students will research people who made contributions to business, technology and their community, including individuals like Thomas Jennings, the first African American to be granted a patent.

“Students also discuss the migration of large numbers of African Americans to New York City and other northern cities to work in factories beginning in the 1890s and they will investigate artists, writers and musicians associated with the Harlem Renaissance.”

How rich would our sense of New York’s history be if each of us learned what the Amistad Commission outlined just for fourth-graders.

One of the report’s findings, though, is this: “A strong connection to the State’s education department and budget appropriation are critical to the effectiveness of the Commission.”

We’ve written many times on this page on the problems of unfunded mandates. Without funds to finance the commission members and their efforts — including a website with resource materials that appear not to have been updated in years — the research that led to the development of such a rich curriculum is worthless. The state should follow through with needed support.

Failing that, another of the report’s findings may hold a key. It notes that instruction aligned to the state’s social studies framework is ultimately controlled by local school districts. We encourage our local school districts, all of them, to make black history an integral part of social studies curricula as well as lessons taught in other subjects.

King notes a recent McGraw-Hill textbook distributed in Texas that describes the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as the immigration of “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”  He also notes questionable class activities such as student participation in mock slave auctions.

King writes correctly, “We should ask how we can truly represent Black history in more humanizing ways … In many ways, we teach about Black history and not through it … Enslavement should not be the first contact school children have with Black history. Thousands of years of Black history existed before Western contact.”

History, King notes, is not just about where and what people have been but it provides a blueprint for where they will go and what they will be.

We wholeheartedly endorse King’s powerful conclusion and we hope our local educators heed his words: “As was the case in the early twentieth century and the 1960s, Black history is needed to allow society to comprehend Blackness through the record of Black agency and advancement in the context of systemic notions of White supremacy and racism. 

“Our teaching should be centered on how Black history improves our understanding of contemporary circumstances, and how it can stimulate us to improve our democracy.”

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