Don’t Know Much About (Black) History: School Curricula and the Myth of a Common Narrative

Published as a ZNet Commentary, 7/19/05

Recently, Philadelphia became the first American city to require its high school students to complete a course in African American history as a condition of graduation. And predictably, in the “City of Brotherly Love,” there is already an outcry of opposition from certain whites, who comprise less than 20 percent of the city’s public school students.

Though the white CEO of the school system has spoken forcefully to the effect that one cannot really understand American history without understanding black history, some less enlightened souls feel decidedly otherwise. Their complaints are nothing if not unoriginal.

Requiring African American history will be “divisive” they claim, further tearing the city apart, rather than uniting it. But what kind of argument is this? Are we to believe that standard American history has been unifying? The kind of history that largely ignores the contributions and struggles of persons of color in the U.S.? The history that too often paints an image of Africa suggesting there were no signs of civilization there before whites arrived, and thus that black history doesn’t begin until slavery? The kind of history that relegates black folks to one month out of the year, and even then only teaches about a few prominent figures: Dr, King, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and perhaps Rosa Parks?

Could it be that such a “standard” history has only been unifying for whites by and large, seeing as how it has presented history in a way that typically glorifies white leaders, European cultural contributions and traditions, and white perspectives on various historical events?

How unifying has it been for black folks to read about their history as if it were only a compendium of victimization narratives? To learn nothing of early African cultures and the ways in which many of their existing traditions stem from those longstanding folkways? To be given the impression that Africa is a vast jungle of uncivilized brutes, as contrasted with the ostensibly superior European nation-states that colonized and dominated it for so long? This, in spite of the rather overwhelming evidence that many African lands were far more advanced than those of Europe, well into the recently completed millennium.

And what is more divisive? The addition of African American history to the curriculum, or the exodus of white families from the Philadelphia schools in the first place, in large part to escape integrated environments and to run instead to whiter suburban systems or private schools? That this re-segregation has been far more divisive than black history could ever be, should be obvious, but will certainly be missed by those white folks who think our perspectives are somehow independent of racial considerations or biases.

Of course, white folks often misunderstand what is and is not unifying. To many of us, whatever makes us feel good is seen as a source of unity: like July 4th. Back in 1987, during the 200th anniversary celebration of the Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s observation that the nation’s history was not merely the resplendent menagerie of greatness perceived by most whites, brought down shit storms of outrage upon his head. He had injected “divisiveness” it was said, into a celebration that, in the absence of his own big mouth, would have been enjoyed by all.

Indeed, whites throw the unity concept around, absent any real understanding of what it means. So after 9/11, for example, millions of whites (and pretty much only whites) slapped bumper stickers on their cars that read “United We Stand.” The lack of such automotive adornment on the vehicles of persons of color owes less to differences in patriotism per se, or shock and outrage over the events of that day, than it does to a recognition on the part of such persons that disunity is more common in this nation than unity, and a terrorist attack didn’t change that.

Wide racial gaps in income, wealth, and housing, along with persistent bias in the justice system makes a mockery out of white pronouncements of unity, and renders utterly specious the notion that teaching black history (as opposed to merely living the white version) is what divides us.

Other voices in Philly claim that black history is too narrow a topic to be required. Presumably the themes therein won’t be sufficiently broad to appeal to all students or offer them important historical lessons.

The same argument was heard several years ago in San Francisco. At the time, a push for diversifying the literature curricula in schools was met with howls of protest, even from liberal whites, who insisted the addition of “too many” authors of color would crowd out “the classics.” That the classics were only “classic” because white scholars had deemed them so — and not due to some objective scientific standard by which great literature can be judged — escaped notice. That many of these classics were once considered junk fiction (like the works of Mark Twain for example) also went unremarked upon during the uproar.

White critics of the plan complained that black and brown authors’ stories wouldn’t be “universal” enough in the themes they discussed, signifying the way in which Eurocentric thinking supplants rational thought. Such an argument assumes that white folks’ perspectives are sufficiently broad to stand in as the generic “human” experience, while persons of color have experiences which are only theirs, and from which whites can learn nothing. This is, truth be told, the essence of white supremacist thinking.

Related to the idea that black history is too narrow a subject matter, critics like Pennsylvania Speaker of the House John Perzel argue it is unfair to focus only on blacks. What about other groups? Perzel himself recently complained that when he — a Czech descended American — came through the Philadelphia schools, there was no class about his people’s homeland: an argument that ignores the fundamentally larger role blacks have played in the development of the U.S. as compared to Czech immigrants. To reduce the black experience to just one of many, as if it were no different from any other immigrant group either in quantity or quality, is all the evidence one should require of the need for such a class to be mandated (and for some adults to be required to re-enroll so as to take it as well.)

Of course American History classes should strive to tell the stories of those from all ethnic and national origin groups. But black history is especially important given the unique ways in which the black struggle for equality has defined the contours of American freedom (or the lack thereof) in every generation since the nation’s founding.

Perzel then argues Philly students should focus on reading, writing and arithmetic before dabbling in such extraneous classes as Black History. But this posits a false choice: as if one cannot learn to read, write or compute and gain an historical grounding at the same time. Indeed, engaging the school’s two-thirds black majority in an exploration of a history that has largely been invisible to them (and which directly relates to their lives) may result in more achievement in other areas, precisely by engaging them in a more relevant pedagogical frame than the one currently offered.

This is not to deny that literacy and broad-based achievement are the most important goals. Of course they are, and other initiatives underway in Philadelphia (like the expansion of accelerated and honors programs in all the city’s schools so as to reach more capable but currently underperforming kids) can help that process along. But one boosts achievement best, not by offering drill-and-kill standardized tests to kids, or teaching them outdated and monocultural history, but rather by engaging them where they are, with curricula that speaks to their lives.

Even the students in the Philadelphia schools who aren’t black may find the new material on African American history more interesting than having to rehash the material they’ve been fed since birth. This will be especially likely if the new course teaches, as it should, the ways in which non-black folks have often worked with African Americans to forge a more equitable society: in the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, and in contemporary justice struggles.

In other words, Black History need not be a history only of black folks, but a history of the ways in which the black experience has defined all of our lives: politically, culturally, and otherwise. That is, by definition a multicultural history, albeit one told through the predominant lens of a particular group whose voices have long been ignored.

While some of the more thoughtful critics contend black history should be integrated throughout the existing history classes (and in this they surely have a point), the fact remains that it isn’t, and there is no evidence to suggest it will be anytime soon. The choice at present is not between a well-integrated, multiple-perspective history curricula on the one hand, and African American history on the other. Rather it is between a largely Eurocentric history on the one hand (with occasional smatterings of “other” folks’ narratives thrown in like an afterthought), or an attempt at a more honest and complete course offering on the other: one that can break down the white perspectivism that too often sullies our understanding of history and miseducates everyone’s kids in the process.

Given that choice, the path ahead should be clear.

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