Teachers want an expanded Black History curriculum, but some conservatives want to dictate the type
Black History Month honors Black people’s lives, accomplishments and contributions to the world.
It started as Negro History Week in 1926 to counter racist stereotypes of Black people and tell their rich history. It became a month-long celebration in 1976.
Black history wasn’t included in U.S. textbooks prior to the creation of Negro History Week.
Some teachers and scholars today say so much of Black people’s history is still not included in U.S. curriculums. At the same time, some states want to dictate the type of Black history that can be taught.
There are fewer than 15 states in the U.S. that mandate Black History education in their public schools.
"Systematically, Black History has not been a major topic within most schools and school districts in terms of the curriculum and in terms of courses offered," King says. "And by systematically I’m meaning the official history curriculum that states develop in terms of their standards."
That’s Lagarrett King, an associate professor of Social Studies Education at the University at Buffalo.
Wisconsin does not have a mandate. King says the states with mandates include:
"Illinois, New York State, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Florida, Tennessee, [and] South Carolina. California has an ethnic studies requirement. Washington State, Arkansas and Mississippi—they all mandate Black history to be taught in their courses, but early reports on those particular states is that they're not doing a real good job in terms of accountability."
King says he would give the U.S. a C- in teaching Black History.
Because the early U.S. History curriculum either left Black people out altogether, told stories that stereotyped and dehumanized Black people, or told stories of Black people complacent in their oppression, Black people started writing their own stories.
King says after the Civil War the first things Black people did was write, with a w, and right, with an r, Black history.
But that history is one being targeted in some state Legislatures under new laws.
King says he thinks Black history education is being targeted for several reasons: Black people are an easy target, anti-blackness is rampant in this country, and the racial justice movement in the summer of 2020 scared some people.
Since 2021, Nearly 20 states have passed laws that ban teaching Critical Race Theory, ban materials that, “promote discrimination,” and that limit the ways teachers can discuss race or gender.
Florida schools, for example, are prohibited from teaching Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project. And the state recently rejected a proposed AP African American Studies course citing that it violated state law and “lacked educational value.”
King says the topic of Black history is not the issue; it’s the type. He says there’s a reason we teach about Martin Luther King Jr. and not Malcolm X.
"We've always had these problems," King says. "And you saw that in the 1960s when Black history and Black studies courses started to spring up in schools around the nation as a connection to the Civil Rights Movement. It's that a lot of people thought, you know, 'hey we just need to teach Black history, it's history,' and other people thought it was some form of activism, right, similar arguments that we have today."
King says we teach about Black history and not through it.
Teaching through Black history would be from Black people’s perspectives, which King says will look different from the traditional narrative.
King says, "In this country we need to really understand that what’s historically important to white people is not historically important to Black people."
Jim Nelsen, the social studies department chair at MPS’ Golda Meir in Milwaukee, agrees that Black history education needs improvement.
He pointed out the repetitive nature of the content.
"Typically, when we teach Black history, you can ask kids what do you learn about, and it's going to be Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and George Washington Carver, and that’s it. Every, single, year."
Nelsen is currently teaching a course on personal finance where he also incorporates lessons on racial discrimination. And he ties in local connections for his students.
"We talk about in class how African Americans in Milwaukee have been historically discriminated against when it comes to banks, how that actually reflects a national trend, but then there's one group of people who tried to do something about it," Nelsen says. "And so I tell the kids, you know, if your family owns their own home and they've been in Milwaukee for a couple of generations, then chances are either your parents or your grandparents probably got a loan from the Columbia Savings and Loan. And so then hopefully we can have some of those intergenerational conversations because that is really important for like all of history, but in particular, that's important for Black history."
He says as a white teacher it’s important to be conscious of race.
And he doesn’t have a problem talking about race with his students; he says they’re already talking about it outside of school.
Nelsen says course and book bans are extremely detrimental for everybody involved.