Should schools be required to teach a black history class? | The Tylt
Should schools be required to teach a black history class?
Black History Month was founded on Carter G. Woodson's idea that if "a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated." The month is meant to specifically honor the contributions made by black Americans, as school curriculums in America largely focus on Eurocentric history.
Despite the widely-celebrated month, schools don't always impart the education they should be when it comes to black history. According to The Atlantic's Melinda D. Anderson, in 2014, a group called Teaching Tolerance graded all 50 states and the District of Columbia on the quality of their public schools' education on the civil-rights era. The results were dire: 20 states received a failing grade and five states had no state standards for civil rights education whatsoever.
But the civil rights era is just one segment of black history. If schools aren't teaching a fairly modern chapter to students, they are almost certainly missing many other crucial moments.
Raquel Willis, a writer and racial-justice activist in Atlanta, remembers annual Black History Month school displays in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, as neither memorable nor notable. “There was always a focus on the civil-rights movement and it was as if black history stopped once Dr. King died,” Willis said. “We rarely learned about anyone new from year to year, and we also didn’t get a context of different time periods. I would’ve loved to have delved into African history, the Harlem Renaissance, black life in the 1970s, and beyond.”
A class requirement could rectify schools' spotty historical accounts, helping students understand and appreciate a holistic history of their country, while working against racism and ignorance.
But not everyone is in agreement. Some people believe Black History Month, or a black history class, works against the ultimate goal of equal representation. Anderson refers to Zia Hassan, a fourth-grade English language-arts teacher, who believes that "compartmentalizing" history does not benefit students:
Explaining his teaching philosophy, Hassan said a worthwhile history curriculum is one that would have “slavery and racism ingrained within it, just as it is in American society. It would not be discussed as a side issue.” He values a month when black authors and historical figures can be studied exclusively, but Hassan believes Black History Month as observed in many schools sends a troubling message to students that “we’re allowed to grapple with [black issues] less in, say, March or April … It is important to discuss issues of race in the context of current events throughout the year, no matter the unit topic.”
According to this line of thinking, students would be far better off in studying black history within the context of their ongoing American history courses. By separating the topics, schools would send the message that black history and American history do not go hand-in-hand, which might result in further racism and ignorance.
Some critics of Black History Month say it falls short of what should be the reality: black history every day. A required class in black history would not only preserve and celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans, but would improve racial and cultural understanding across the board.
In 2005, the city of Philadelphia took that step. It took 40-years for calls for a specific black history class to manifest. Nevertheless, Philadelphia became the first city to require such a course for ninth-grade students city-wide. The New York Times reports:
School officials here say the course carries huge benefits for all students and offers a perspective on American history that has been largely absent from most contemporary teaching guides.
"You cannot understand American history without understanding the African-American experience; I don't care what anybody says," said Paul G. Vallas, the school system's chief executive, who is white. "It benefits African-American children who need a more comprehensive understanding of their own culture, and it also benefits non-African-Americans to understand the full totality of the American experience."
But even in Philadelphia, the results are not perfect. Rachel Toliver, a Philadelphia high school English teacher, surveyed some of her former students on their black history requirement. The results were largely tepid when it came to the overall impact of the class, particularly as it pertains to modern race relations.
Toliver reports on a variety of student feedback in the New Republic. One student tells her that for a class that centers on black history, the conversation about race falls short. As a result, this student says, "most students left with the same mindsets they entered with.” Toliver expands:
Gabrielle Richardson told me that although the course expanded her knowledge of African-American history, “the way it was taught made it seem that racial injustice was a thing of the past. There was no correlation of historic events with current politics or culture. It was taught in a way that isolated the past and the present.” Davis, now a sophomore at Temple University, questioned her class’s treatment of Trayvon Martin’s murder—or rather, the fact that the class didn’t really engage with the tragedy. The class simply “acknowledged that it happened and moved on.”
Although most of Toliver's students agree the class was better than nothing, they argue that the solution is not a catch-all for shifting ignorant minds–much more needs to be done than a simple class requirement.