Written by Ellen Wang, Senior Program and Equity Officer, Nellie Mae Education Foundation
Black History is American History: Why We Must Continue to Teach the Truth
As a Taiwanese immigrant and parent of a bi-racial child, I believe it is important for every young person to have options in their learning. When I was growing up, I loved reading and pored over books. It was an escape for me into faraway lands both real and fantastical; books opened my world in understanding different concepts, cultures, and ideas. Now, as a parent of a 14-year-old high schooler who is not as much of an avid reader as I am, I recently noticed my son reading Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography. I took the opportunity to strike up a conversation with him about what he was learning at school. In his English Language Arts class, ninth graders have been learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, by building their understanding of the ways in which these two civil rights activists were similar and where their tactics diverged. I shared with him that in Florida, Governor DeSantis was banning the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies course and asked what he thought about this decision. His response was “that’s stupid, because high school is where you learn and try out new ideas. And it’s dumb that he’s doing that because Black history is American history.”
My son attends high school in a “progressive” public school district in the “left-leaning” state of Massachusetts. While I’m glad he’s learning about Dr. King and Malcolm X, I also wish he was being taught that Coretta Scott King was an important civil rights activist, in addition to Fannie Lou Hamer’s important contributions to the civil rights movement. Even though my son read more than Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he certainly isn’t reading Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, Angela Davis, or other Black authors that many think are indoctrinating our young people; but I wish he was.
My child and every child in this country deserves access to and full participation in an education that enables them to think critically, analytically, and expansively, which is what the AP African American Studies curriculum and culturally responsive curricula enable young people to do.
As Gholdy Muhammad, author of Cultivating Genius, writes, “As long as oppression is present in the world, young people need pedagogy that nurtures criticality.”
I believe it is important for my son, every young person in Florida, and every young person in the United States of America to have the option to take AP African American studies. I wish that what was covered in the AP course was taught in all US history classes, given that most of us are settlers in a country that was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. In this moment, as we collectively mourn the brutal police killings of Tyre Nichols, Keenan Anderson, and countless other Black lives lost, we must understand that the history of modern-day policing can be traced back to the Slave Patrols. But we also need to accept that slavery is not the history of Black Americans.
What many of us are missing as adults in this country, is knowledge and understanding of the full range and dynamic complexity of Black experiences and the myriad of contributions of the African diaspora.
Black Americans have made innumerable contributions to different sectors, including education. Let us honor the legacy of civil rights leaders such as Robert (Bob) Parris Moses, one of the organizers of the Freedom Schools. Moses’ experience in Mississippi developing a program that would empower young people “to articulate their own desires, demands, and questions” and “to find alternative and ultimately new directions for action” laid the path for The Algebra Project, a national organization which maintains that math literacy, like reading and writing, is necessary for full citizenship. We need to learn each other’s histories in their expansiveness so that we can see each other in our full humanity, as a step towards justice.
At the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, we are committed to equitable public education and teaching the truth in schools. As a philanthropic organization, we have the honor of supporting frontline organizers and movement leaders in New England who have been fighting for education justice, well before the current socio-political context. Two examples of our grantee partners doing this work are The Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education (ARISE) which advocates for learning accurate history through their #TeachingTruth campaign, and Students for Educational Justice (SEJ), a youth-led organization that advocated (and won!) to pass Connecticut House Bill 7082, requiring all CT public high schools to offer an elective in Black and Latinx studies by the year 2023.
I want to leave you with some concrete actions we can take in the face of mounting pressures that continue to point to the state of our democracy:
- Organize like the Mississippi Freedom Riders. For every parent who speaks out against culturally responsive curriculum, we need five caregivers to speak up in support of antiracist education. Regardless of the local context in which you live, support our educators who are continuing to expose our students to rich and diverse curriculum, even in the face of conservative backlash across the country. Write to the superintendent of your district, provide open comment during school committee meetings, become friends with your local librarian, write to your elected officials, and engage with other parents. This is not a burden only for families of color to carry. There is no time to waste, for as I write amidst the attacks from DeSantis and company, the College Board is already updating the A.P. African American Studies course.
- Talk to the young people in your lives; listen to what they want and need in their schooling. Support (financially, by volunteering, amplifying, etc.) youth-led organizations including the ones mentioned above, who are fighting this fight for the long haul.
- Learn Black History. All day, every day, because as my son articulated and many of us know, Black history is American History.
Updated 2/16/23 at 3:04 p.m. EST. An earlier version noted that Robert (Bob) Parris Moses led the Freedom Schools. This post has been updated, noting that Robert was one of the organizers of the Freedom Schools.