Since it’s Black History Month, I think it’s important to address the lack of Black history taught in American education. African American history curriculum is neglected in schools, with Black culture and experience underrepresented; too often Black history is a footnote in American History curriculum.
There are no federal requirements for teaching Black history in schools. In most American schools, the teaching of Black history starts with the colonization of the United States and enslavement. The curriculum continues with watered-down lessons on the Civil War and ends with the civil rights movement. A 2014 study evaluating state school standards and frameworks for teaching about the civil rights movement found the average score of civil rights education across all states and the District of Columbia was 33%. Only Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina received an A. Missouri scored 14%.
In many schools, this poor curriculum is all the Black history education students receive. We learned about how slaves were bought and sold as property and worked on cotton farms but not the atrocities of slavery like experimentation on enslaved black people and human breeding farms.
Standard education includes stories of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but their stories are hardly told in full. The Civil War is too often oversimplified to be about state rights, when the main issue was states’ rights to own slaves. The Jim Crow era is glossed over and students are lucky if they learned about the Black experience after the Civil War was over, like having to endure mobs of white people destroying the communities they worked to make prosperous, like in the case of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre where these white mobs murdered hundreds of African Americans in Tulsa’s Greenwood District.
One of the biggest problems is the history of Black people in America isn’t connected with the Black experience today. We say it happened; we say it’s over, but we aren’t taught how this history is impacting the present, how it’s led to oppression and unfairness.
I graduated high school with people who left my school believing that systemic racism isn’t real. These are the same people who belittle Black Lives Matter, who don’t understand what people are fighting for, who only see the flames burning and ignore the fact that they come from a history that started the sparks, and they are part of the society that kept it smoldering. Black students should get to learn about their history, and it should be taught in a way that non-Black students connect with the humanity of the Black experience. That’s the first step in understanding the systemic racism that affects their peers to this day.
Another thing that is lacking from Black history education is the celebration of Black culture and achievements. As important as the topics of enslavement and the civil rights movement are, these are topics that focus on the suffering of Black people, and there is so much more to Black history than suffering.
Students learn about ancient European cultures like the Minoans and Greek civilizations, but the history of Africa is left out. White people erased African history from lessons like they erased the identity of Black enslaved people. The closest schools get to teaching African heritage is Ancient Egypt.
Students should also get to learn the history of prominent and influential African civilizations like the Songhai Empire and Great Zimbabwe. Furthermore, most curriculum focuses on scientific achievements from white civilizations like the Romans and Greeks, when really most of these contributions were developed previously in Africa: counting systems, accurate astronomical observations, steam engines, advanced medicinal treatments. The people of Africa started the Iron Age and spread it to the rest of the world. These are achievements that should be celebrated, yet they are often not even brought up.
There’s clearly a gap in knowledge about Black history, and it doesn’t help that our own former president commissioned for “patriotic education,” a move that would have only added to the ignorance of the Black experience and would preserve systemic racism. President Biden got rid of the commission, but there needs to be action taken to teach a richer history.
Some school districts are aware of this issue and have been working to improve the way Black history is taught. The Texas Board of Education approved a statewide elective in African American studies for juniors and seniors. Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public School District improved it’s K-12 curriculum on Black history by adding a racial equity policy, which, among many solutions, requires teachers to take anti-racism training and establish a more inclusive curriculum, like making history less focused on European culture. Back in 2005, Philadelphia became the first district in the country to require students to take a course in African American history to graduate.
These are steps in the right direction, but the standards of how Black history is taught needs to be raised nationwide. Teachers need to be trained on how to incorporate enriching history with Black perspectives and expand lessons to explore multiple subjects of Black history. They should be connecting lessons to the present, so students can learn how history still affects us. Children and students desire knowledge; they want to understand, and it starts with school curriculum.
This month we should be celebrating African American achievements and those who paved the way to justice. People should also be taking the time to learn about true African American history, about true American history. By the way most of us were taught in school, we have a lot of learning to do. That’s why we should also be challenging the insufficient narrative of Black history taught in schools, so young non-Black people can appreciate Black history and understand the Black experience in our society, and Black students get the chance to learn of their enriching culture and influences, not just during this month but all year long.