Black History Matters

by Elizabeth M. Gillespie

Nikole Hannah-Jones sparked a ripple effect of social change. It cannot be stopped now. She took her boulder of knowledge that is the 1619 Project and dropped it on the world. Tenured or not, the impact and influence of her work and the ripple effect of change it creates will be felt forevermore. Her contributions to consciousness-raising and creating a more just and equal society warrant her own place in the annuals of history. Still, Nikole Hannah-Jones challenged the status quo and, thus, she was subjected to what all great and brave challengers face – push back

Power never bends willingly, especially when it comes to demands for change to the status quo. Hannah-Jones’ tenure denial reflects this age-old fact, but it also brings up other bigger issues that we must address as a country. Firstly, what are the dangers of continuing to marginalize Black history in our education system, and secondly, what can we do to set a new precedent, one where Black history is taught as American history? At a time when more students are demanding an inclusive and fuller history be taught and greater efforts are being made at the state level to integrate Black history into schools, the time is now to embrace and adopt the 1619 Project.

Some of the consequences of marginalizing Black history to one short month a year are obvious. The Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy found that few schools “teach Black history well.” In fact, the average American has a “spotty” knowledge of slavery and may only know a bit more about the Civil Rights Movement. A 2015 study found only 8 -9% of total class time (1 to 2 lessons) is devoted to Black history. Perhaps one reason for the lack of Black history in the American classroom is because teachers report feeling uncomfortable teaching about slavery and having a lack of resources to do so properly (not to mention 79% of K-12 teachers are white). There is also the issue that despite some states seeking to do more to teach Black history, other states are actively signing bills into law banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

We remain woefully uneducated about Black history and Black contributions to our country, which indicates a missed opportunity to foster a more understanding and sympathetic society. According to some, the reasons for failing to teach more Black history are twofold: it forces us to address our “ugly” past and it demands changes to our current American narrative. The failure to accurately and fully teach Black history in the U.S. impedes all progress and efforts to be better as a society. It heavily implies we are not as educated of a citizenry as we think. The continued denial and marginalization of Black history is both absurd, considering the truth about Black history in America is out there, and dangerous. It’s dangerous because teaching history only from the perspective of the “victors” or of the “powers that be” promotes and perpetuates racism through institutions and systems of power. This approach to history also precariously encourages a sense of white tribalism. The bottom line is that history is important and how it is told matters.

One might argue at the collegiate level, students are able to take electives that incorporate or focus entirely on Black history and are exposed to different cultures and ways of thinking, all of which lead to greater contact with diversity and new knowledge. Is this enough? What must we do to fully incorporate and teach Black history as American history? First, we start by doing just that. We must update and adapt our ways of thinking and doing by amalgamating Black history into all of American history. This means teaching the myriad of ways systems, institutions, and people have worked to oppress Black people in this country. It also means teaching about the many triumphs and achievements of Black individuals, groups, organizations, and cultures too. As Jania Hoover explained it, “the Black experience is not one dimensional” and, yet, it’s taught as such. To teach of their accomplishments, including the work of Hannah-Jones, we teach equality.

Crucially, we also have to train and develop our educators on Black history and provide the necessary tools and voices needed to give justice to the telling of Black history as American history. When it comes to teaching Black history at colleges and universities, we must not sugarcoat the truth. It’s a history that deserves to be told factually and with care to ensure Black voices and experiences are heard and validated. Sometimes, though, it takes enough people to want a change for a change to happen. Hannah-Jones did her part. It’s the rest of us that must demand change in our educational system and institutions.

Elizabeth M. Gillespie is a Benjamin L. Hooks Institute Academic Research Fellow and assistant professor in the Department of Public and Nonprofit Administration at the University of Memphis.

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