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What's really lost when schools only make Black History Month lessons optional

These policies are an attempt to further erase Black people from society, which damages the psyches of all children.
Onamia MN, 2/25/04----Vala Eagle 11,  a  6th grader at Nay Ah Shing school in Onamia puts photographs of  Dr. Martin Luther King  on a poster for Black History month.  Donna Benson is a social studies teacher at Nay Ah Shing school and  the students in he
A student at Nay Ah Shing school places photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King on a poster for Black History month, in Onamia, Minn.Jerry Holt / Star Tribune via Getty Images file

As we come to the end of Black History Month, we should remember that the war on Black history has reached new heights in America. At the start of the month, a Montessori school in North Ogden, Utah, sent a letter to parents allowing them to opt out of having their children participate in Black history lessons. The school later backtracked on the plan after receiving backlash. Then came news that a counselor in Brown County, Indiana, had sent a memo to parents with a similar message. The superintendent for Brown County Schools said that the letter was “unauthorized” and called it erroneous.

It should be noted that Brown County, Indiana, is 96.8 percent white, and North Ogden, Utah, is 94.2 percent white.

How can kids expect to figure out the world and solve its problems when they are clueless about what is happening now and have no knowledge of the past?

Despite the walking back of these policies, they are still evidence of the attempts to erase Black people from society and damage the psyches of children. Such proposals are the tip of the iceberg. They come after months of states enacting laws against critical race theory and the 1619 Project, “anti-woke” laws that allow parents to sue schools for curricula that purportedly cause white discomfort and tear-shedding, and green-light the banning of books on race, sexuality and the Holocaust.

In a country where the teaching of Black history, African history and ethnic studies is woefully inadequate and often nonexistent, Black History Month is the bone that is thrown to Black people, almost like a concession. It is relegated to the sidelines and treated like something that only Black children should learn. It is an afterthought, far removed from the “real” history, which centers white people, is taught year-round and is required for all children to learn.

According to a 2015 study by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, American history classes spend merely 8 to 9 percent of total class time on Black history. Further, there are no federal requirements or standards, and teachers often do not receive training or support to create lessons. Whether in February or throughout the school year, a society that fails to teach its children Black history speaks volumes about what it deems important.

Even when U.S. students do learn about that history in small and limited amounts, it is relegated to discussions on enslavement, with no lines connecting the past and the present. Yes, it is vital that students learn about the intergenerational trauma that is slavery, Jim Crow segregation and institutional racism. However, that history on its own is inadequate. If slavery is the first and only takeaway about Black people, think about what that messaging could do to students — of all races.

Ultimately, the teaching of history becomes empty, lifeless, irrelevant and something that happened a long time ago, which explains why two-thirds of people surveyed in a 2020 national poll “considered history to be little more than an assemblage of names, dates and events.”

As a Black man and a journalism and media studies professor who majored in East Asian studies in college — before going to law school and studying subjects such as critical race theory and international human rights — I find myself teaching lessons on Black history and ethnic studies in my classes from time to time.

Even when U.S. students do learn about that history in small and limited amounts, it is relegated to discussions on enslavement, with no lines connecting the past and the present.

And while I appreciate the Black history I learned in school, I also remember learning much more outside of it. My parents made sure that I read about the African empires, Queen Nzinga, Queen Yaa Asantewaa, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Dr. Charles Drew, George Washington Carver, Benjamin Banneker and many others.

It changes your perspective to learn that, as the late scholar Ivan van Sertima taught, ancient Africans had contact with the Americas before Christopher Columbus. Or to find out that King Abubakari II of Mali, who ruled perhaps the largest and richest empire at that time, led an expedition to what is now Brazil in 1312.

What about the history of Haiti? It came into being when enslaved African people overthrew Napoleon, defeated the French army and formed the first Black republic and independent Caribbean nation.

And even something as mundane as macaroni and cheese has a backstory. A Black man named James Hemings introduced the dish — known as macaroni pie -— to America. Enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, Hemings — the older brother of Sally Hemings and half-brother of Martha Jefferson, the president’s wife — was trained as a French chef in Paris, where he learned to prepare the dish.

The students at Rutgers where I teach are diverse, with students of color comprising a majority of the student body. However, I am sure many did not learn this history in school. History to me is important when it informs us about the present. Otherwise, its use is limited. And as Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Students lose context and understanding about present-day realities when they do not learn the whole history. Black students, in particular, lose self-esteem, while white students may come away with not only a false sense of superiority and a warped view of the past and the present but also narrow perspectives and a limited sense of what is possible in the world. And it makes it easy for people to whitewash history for their own purposes if no one has ever studied it.

Learning Black history liberates all children. Studies have shown that culturally relevant curricula boosts attendance and academic achievement in high school. At the college level, students who take ethnic studies courses are affected positively and have a higher commitment to civic and political affairs and community engagement. The introduction of these studies also allows people to learn critical thinking skills and cultural competency, and build a commitment to social justice.

Some students are lucky enough to get that experience before college. Philadelphia became the first major city to require Black history for high school graduation in 2005. In 2021, California enacted a law that would make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement starting in the 2025-2026 school year. New Jersey and Connecticut made it a requirement to offer such classes as an elective. While it’s not mandatory to take them, the fact that the states offer them is better than school districts that promote an opt-out option for arguably the only month people get to learn anything about Black history.

The fight to ban or allow students to opt-out of learning about Black history reflects a greater effort by conservatives and white supremacists to eliminate public education and academic freedom and kill a fragile multiracial democracy that never had time to grow. As educator, strategist and advocate G.S. Potter has written, it attempts to “weaponize [the 14th Amendment] in the name of reverse racism while using it to destroy any efforts to negate the effects of White racism – including reparations.”

Meanwhile, how can kids expect to figure out the world and solve its problems when they are clueless about what is happening now and have no knowledge of the past? Giving parents the option to whitewash the history their children learn is insidious. We should not have to discuss this in the 21st century, and yet here we are.