February 26, 2024

As debate continues around whether Black history should be taught in schools, now is a good time to reflect on what is shared. We know that a connection exists between pedagogy and student well-being,1 so it is essential that we examine the content being taught and its impact on students. Even as the ill-informed arguments against teaching Black history emphasize how the historical facts of our country might impact non-Black students, similarly, the content of Black history lessons do not always uplift and encourage Black children as they should.

Typically Black history lessons focus on the struggle and accomplishments of Black Americans, beginning with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. While there is truth in these facts, without context, it threatens to cloud what has been achieved under the shadow of in spite of. “That was brilliant” becomes “This poor Black person overcame struggle and strife to grow into someone who made this brilliant thing in spite of.” No people should have their entire history pigeonholed into a box made exclusively from trials and tribulations.

Many American citizens can trace their lineage to their country of origin, and some even still have connections to that country. Black Americans are rarely afforded this privilege without extensive research. With the struggle against brutality and oppression as their legacy, in the absence of culturally responsive supports to process the generational trauma that resulted, Black children risk defining themselves under the umbrella of “overcoming and enduring.” Such an identity is not only exhausting and unsustainable, it does not support healthy social and emotional development.

We often hear about “the first Black American” to gain a position within an institution that had previously excluded Black people, but we too infrequently learn about the multitude of Black achievements that long predate those institutions. As we honor the bravery of Ruby Bridges and the legacy of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), we must also include places like Sankore University in Timbuktu (now Mali). The breadth of higher learning in these African institutions  informed our science, math and philosophy. As we reflect on how slave labor and knowledge of farming built our country’s wealth, we must include the Moors, whose expertise in water management shaped agriculture in Spain.

Teaching that Black history did not start with slavery and including stories highlighting Black brilliance absent the shadow of oppression are needed for Black children to develop positive self-images. It will also help all children develop a richer understanding of the past, appreciate the contributions of Black people throughout all of history, and advocate for a fairer, more just future.

Here are some questions for further thought. We invite you to share your answers in the comments.

  • How has your education on Black history shaped your perception?
  • Are there places in your community that celebrate Black history beyond what is taught in school?
Pritay Washington supports the National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment and the Center for Strategic Prevention Support. She co-chairs EDC’s EDI Committee and Afro Diaspora Employee Resource Group, as well as helps to facilitate EDC’s Understanding and Mitigating Implicit Bias training.
Dr. Joseph Isaac, a veteran STEM educator, curriculum developer, and education researcher, supports the International Basic Education team at EDC, and presently serves as an adjunct professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Howard University’s School of Education.

 


1Waters, L. (2021). Positive education pedagogy: Shifting teacher mindsets, practice, and language to make wellbeing visible in classrooms. In The Palgrave handbook of positive education (pp. 137–164). Cham: Springer International Publishing. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-64537-3_6

equity

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