Teaching Black history in school: ‘Kids need to see joy,’ less trauma, say educators

Shanon Lee
·Contributing Writer
·6 min read
 Educators say schools need to teach more than Black trauma during Black History Month. (Photo: AP)
Educators say schools need to teach more than Black trauma during Black History Month. (Photo: AP)

With Black History Month underway, some educators are challenging the way Black history is currently handled in the public education system. Erica Buddington, founder and chief executive officer of curriculum consultant firm Langston League, for example, believes the approach is contrary to how Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History Month,” intended.

“While Black history is American history, it is still being taught in a very supplemental way,” she tells Yahoo Life. “It is disgusting for Black history to be dwindled down to clubs, posters, quotes and random misrepresentations, but that is where most of our schools are today.”

Woodson, a Black writer and historian, wanted Black history to be taught “through nuanced and historically accurate narratives that allow our children to fully understand the diaspora,” Buddington, a former middle and high school educator, explained.

According to Jesse Hagopian, teacher of ethnic studies at Seattle's Garfield High School and organizer for the Zinn Education Project, the way Black history is being taught in public schools is “abysmal.”

“Most of it is reduced to the enslavement of African peoples,” he tells Yahoo Life. “Students learn Black people were oppressed, but they rarely learn about the immense contributions Black people have made to science, mathematics, technology and the advancement of American democracy through Black collective struggle.”

CBS News found history is inconsistently taught in U.S. schools, with little mandate regarding what is required learning. For example, school textbooks in seven states do not even mention slavery and eight states use textbooks that omit the civil rights movement.

School textbooks in 7 states don’t mention slavery.  (Photo: Getty)
School textbooks in 7 states don’t mention slavery. (Photo: Getty)

Hagopian says the history of heroic uprisings and battles fought by the enslaved for Black freedom is hidden, “so Black kids in this country grow up thinking they have nothing to be proud of, and their entire legacy is one of oppression.”

Students are also forced to study historically inaccurate textbooks, he continues. “Egregious examples include the McGraw-Hill geography textbook with a caption on the map saying Africans were brought over as workers — implying they were earning wages.”

The same textbook referred to the transatlantic slave trade as immigration. Another textbook claimed enslaved people were treated like members of the family, Hagopian mentioned.

“These are the types of narratives students are learning in school, that slavery wasn’t that bad and that [slavery] is all there is to Black history,” he said.

Less than half of U.S. states actually require students to learn about racism, according to CBS News, and only Massachusetts and Maryland use school textbooks that mention white supremacy.

Public schools also gloss over important eras in Black history, says Buddington.

Students learn Black people were oppressed, but they rarely learn about the immense contributions Black people have made to science, mathematics, technology and the advancement of American democracy through Black collective struggle. Jesse Hagopian

“They skip over the Reconstruction Era entirely and move right to Jim Crow, as if there wasn’t a wealth of Black abundance that was eradicated by racial violence during that period,” she says. “They are really just focused on the ‘Master Narrative.’” Racial violence like the Tulsa Race Massacre, which happened a century ago. Sparked by the arrest of a young Black man, white mobs burned a section of Greenwood in Tulsa known as Black Wall Street -- where it is believed more than 300 Black people were killed.

Coined by civil rights activist Julian Bond, the “Master Narrative” is defined as a fictionalized account of American history, designed to camouflage the true violence of white supremacy and obscure what really happened during the civil rights movement.

An African American couple walking across a street with smoke rising in the distance after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. (Photo: Getty Images)
An African American couple walking across a street with smoke rising in the distance after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. (Photo: Getty Images)

“But, there are pockets of schools trying to deviate from that and adopt historically responsive strategies,” she adds.

Buddington says she wishes schools would focus more on what children are learning, rather than spending so much time on standardized testing and policing Black and brown children.

“Your curriculum is not engaging, it does not center Black and brown voices, and it is not reflective of the kids you serve,” she says. “When students say, ‘I do not want to be here,’ you have no counselors but all of these discipline mechanisms to [punish] and expel them.”

Hagopian agreed that one of the biggest challenges in the school system is the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Black students are suspended at four times the rate of white students nationally. Black girls are most disproportionately suspended. This leads to students failing their classes and not graduating,” he says. “We have a society investing heavily in prisons to warehouse our youth that haven’t graduated, rather than investing in support so they can get the education they need.”

Not only that, but public schools with majority students of color receive an estimated $23 billion less in funding than those school districts with a majority of white students.

Hagopian says that “ending the zero tolerance discipline and replacing it with restorative justice” could revolutionize the U.S. educational system.

Protest in Milton, MA demands anti-racist education in public schools (Photo: Getty)
Protest in Milton, MA demands anti-racist education in public schools (Photo: Getty)

Further, the relatively new Black Lives Matter at School movement now aims “to embrace our Black youth and let them know school is a safe place for them,” he adds.

This movement is also dedicated to teaching lessons about institutional racism and the long Black freedom struggle, he says.

Both educators agree teachers must prioritize efforts to center the students they serve.

“Studies have shown student performance increases when students see themselves in the curriculum — they become more invested in what they are learning,” Hagopian says. “More important than for academic success, for their own sense of self-worth.”

Buddington emphasizes that teaching Black history cannot be limited to highlighting Black trauma. “It is important for anyone delivering historical instruction or content about Black, Latinx and Indigenous people to provide nuance,” she says. “All the books are about police brutality and protests, or movements about struggle and pain. Kids need to see joy. They need to be able to dream and imagine.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

  1. Determine your state’s standards for history education.

  2. Learn about your local process for changes to school standards and add your voice to that conversation.

  3. Petition for Black history to be taught honestly, and all year.

  4. Request emphasis on the Reconstruction Era, a transformative and pivotal period in American history that is often omitted from curriculum.

  5. Pledge to Participate in the Black Lives Matter at School Initiative.

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