America’s history books have commonly lacked all but white perspectives, and now, diverse perspectives are at risk of more erasure. The recent push to bar Black stories from curricula in states across the country shows that conservatives are disillusioned with the notion of what is, and what is not, “American history.”
Recently, the College Board has been at the center of racial education discourse. Its Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course curriculum has been met with outcry, with conservative political figures like Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, Jr. calling the course “woke indoctrination masquerading as education.”
Floridian officials are specifically taking issue with a unit of the AP course that covers critical race theory — a topic that has sparked debate at all levels of education recently. The Legal Defense Fund, a legal organization that fights for racial justice, defines critical race theory as “an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society.” According to ABC News, 35 states have enacted or are proposing to enact laws banning or severely restricting critical race theory in educational institutions.
For generations, Americans were taught watered down and white glorifying retellings of historical events. And, if Black American history was taught, it was taught through the lens of suffering and victimization. A study conducted by John Hopkins University found that curricula that incorporate Black history “often fail, because coursework emphasizes the negative aspects of African American life while omitting important contributions made by people of color in literature, politics, theology, art, and medicine.”
In step with that finding, our high school history classes over the years focused on covering slavery and the Civil Rights Movement “as a series of tragedies and victimizations” without giving Black leaders the same spotlight as leaders during other pivotal periods in American history, like the Founding Fathers.
In order to tell an accurate history of the US, Black American history needs to extend past trauma to include stories of progress and the ongoing battle for equality. Black resistance is a portion of the AP African American Studies course that the College Board is in the process of approving. According to the New York Times, this unit aims to address complaints that American curricula is taught “with stories of Black courage, organization and strength elided.”
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to conclude that Black resistance has been historically excluded from standardized curricula because of the bias of white historians, educators, and politicians in control of education. Including activist history would challenge the white narrative and expose America’s hand in oppressive histories, tainting national pride and identity.
The conditional inclusion of Black history in education is rooted in, and has fueled, America’s relationship with white supremacy. Historian Donald Yacovone, an associate at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, wrote in The Harvard Gazette that the authors of history textbooks have “crafted whiteness as a national inheritance, a way to preserve the social construction of American life and, ironically, its democratic institutions and values.”
What this country needs is an attitude adjustment around how its history is remembered and taught. Slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and continued racism in the US are not a secret to the world. Instead of fearing how teaching the truth about Black history will affect our national identity, we need to see it as a necessary step to repairing and addressing the damage this country has done to its people. Taking steps to remember and reconcile the past starts with education.
At a federal level, nuanced Black stories within American history should be required in compulsory education. Allowing states to decide what is and is not appropriate historical education leaves students vulnerable to internalizing a revisionist version of history. Additionally, a state-by-state decision on the subject may widen the existing knowledge gap between students in states with higher and lower quality curricula.
A country that prides itself on its diversity and freedom of thought and identity should teach its history through owning its mistakes and uplifting those who have been wronged by them.