Before a fateful trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, Alana Mitchell said she didn’t feel like she was Black enough to own African American history as her own but she found her place in history within its walls, along with a handful of her classmates from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, a middle and high school in Denver, Colorado.
During the high school’s 2019 visit to the DC museum, students, including Alana were overcome with emotion. They felt heartbreak, anger and confusion. They were surrounded by the rich history of Black artists, politicians and activists at the museum, so why weren’t they taught anything about them in class?”It’s sad that we had to travel 1,000 miles away to learn about ourselves,” Alana said. “And if we hadn’t traveled 1,000 miles away, where would we be right now?”
So Alana and her classmates made a demand to their school board — require African American studies courses at every Denver public school, and teach Black history in every grade.So far, they’ve guaranteed a course at their own school with plans for expansion. It’s a victory, if an incomplete one.In the thick of a nationwide reckoning with racism and a pandemic that’s disproportionately killed Black Americans, students and faculty in local communities across the nation are demanding better Black history programs in schools. From lesson plans that lay bare the horrors of the Tulsa race massacre to literature units that center Black authors and Black experiences, young activists and their faculty supporters see an urgent need for education reform.
Black history doesn’t need to be relegated to a week in February or one unit in US history, proponents say. It doesn’t even need to be restricted to social studies. US schools have failed in the past to support their Black students — now is the time, activists say, to center young Black Americans in their own stories.
Black history lessons in public schools often hit familiar beats — slavery, the end of slavery and the civil rights movement. Images of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks might adorn bulletin boards during Black History Month. After 2008, schools may have integrated President Barack Obama into lesson plans.But only a few states require public schools to teach Black history, including Florida, Illinois and, since 2002, New Jersey. Most of those states don’t define what should be included in those lesson plans.Under New Jersey’s “Amistad” law, named for the rebellion of enslaved Africans who rose up against their captors on a ship bound for the New World, all public schools in the state are required to teach Black history. The law requires schools in the state to teach the horrors of slavery, but districts decide how — and what — to teach.
The students in the African American Culture Club at New Jersey’s Cherry Hill High School East want more than just a week of programming during Black History Month. They want a yearlong course as a graduation requirement.”It’s the same thing over and over,” said Machayla Randall, rising senior at Cherry Hill East, of the Black History Month curriculum she is taught every year. “With other units, there’s projects, and there’s tests devoted just for those sections. But for Black history and African American history, there’s nothing for that.”The death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests galvanized the Cherry Hill student group. Machayla said that while police brutality isn’t a concern in her New Jersey suburb, she’s often stereotyped or on the receiving end of microaggressions because she’s Black. Those racist incidents may happen less often if their school does a better job of teaching about them, she said. Members of the group have had productive conversations with the school superintendent and the school board — two members of the board told the Philadelphia Inquirer that an African American studies class would be a positive addition to district curriculum. District officials invited some members of the African American Culture Club to discuss curriculum with the district before the school year starts next month with a hybrid format. Machayla insisted, though, that they’ll push district officials until they see results.
Educators who support bringing Black history into schools say visibility is critical for young Black students who haven’t seen themselves in subjects before — like Alana and her Denver classmates. If it weren’t for the trip to the DC museum, the students said, they may not have ever known what they’d been missing.”That museum kind of broke us all down,” said Jenelle Nangah, a student at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College who attended the trip to the DC museum. When the group of students came back from that trip, they formed a Black Student Association. Some members of that group, plus a few more students who weren’t on the trip, decided they wanted to see Black history taught in school so younger students wouldn’t have to travel across the country for the same experience.
The students presented their dream class to their school board, which approved a plan for an African American studies course at the school with plans to expand it to other schools.Now, the course on Black history isn’t only offered to only high schoolers — middle schoolers at the school are learning about the Middle Passage and the horrors of the Transatlantic slave trade, the students said. They’re also learning about African empires and the cultural impact of Black artists and creators.Still, the expansion to other schools has been slow going. District officials told Denver magazine 5280 that developing a new curriculum takes time and resources that Denver public schools are short on, particularly during a pandemic. But the students have highlighted an undeniable need to do more and do better.”We are not just slavery, we are not just the civil rights movement,” said Angel Amankwaah, who didn’t attend the trip but helped lead the charge for an African American studies class. “We are not just MLK and Malcom X, we are the Mali empire and the Ghanian empire. We are Black Wall Street. We are the Harlem Renaissance. We are beautiful and amazing things.”
Do you think it’s early enough for teens to know about Black history, hence introduced into the school curriculum?