Black history education in schools reveals inadequacies
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. - In a school district that is 98% black, black history is vital to the curriculum at Benton Harbor Area Schools. But not all school districts in Michiana are as diverse and one civil rights historian said adequately teaching black history is a major issue plaguing local schools.
As more black lives are lost, not just by the hands of police but because of a worldwide pandemic over the last year, it’s these statistics that stand out:
"When people look at kind of where the state of black America is today, the tendency because of the way we teach it, is to blame black people for their situation, versus a very insidious historical process that produced the results that we see today," Darryl Heller, the Civil Rights Heritage Center Director said.
“I think we're in a case study right now if you look at what happened in our country over 2020, with regards to the uprisings across the world of black people. And the answer is yes things shall change as you move forward, you have to," Dr. Andrae Townsel, the Superintendent fpr Benton Harbor Area Schools said.
But you do have to wonder, would we be in this situation if subjects like black history were taught more extensively at a young age? Heller says no.
“It's not taught adequately is a significant problem. And I think what history teachers and kind of how history, particularly African American history is kind of cherry-picked. Like the full depth of African American history is generally excluded," Heller said.
Many students learn of black trailblazers like Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman but Heller said that’s not enough.
"We learn a little bit about slavery. And the two people we learned from slavery are Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. We kind of skip a big chunk of African American history, to the civil rights movement but we're never quite told why a civil rights movement was necessary. When we get to civil rights history, we learn about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. And then we kind of skipped to Barack Obama," Heller said.
Skipping parts of history may mean students aren’t getting the full picture.
"We learned that slavery was bad, but we ended it, some stuff happened, but Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks kind of fix that. And now look, Barack Obama, we had a black president, racism is over, we're done," he said. "What I've come to begin seeing is that what we learn essentially is a white-washed history. That's this positive, triumphant narrative, that act that the kids learn that racism and discrimination came to an end. So why are people of color, why are immigrants, why are those other groups that are marginalized? What is their problem?"
He said learned ignorance was just part of the problem we saw on January 6th at our nation’s capital.
"When people storming the white house, I mean, the capitol building with confederate flags. I'm talking about we're going to take back our country, and who gets included in that hour is the hour that they learned in American history of the only means people. And that's by and large, white people," he said. “African American history, black history, is American history. And unless it is taught as American history fully. The painful and shameful as well as the triumphant and proud stuff we can be proud of. We get this skewed image of who we are as Americans as people in the world, and we remain disconnected from one another into these isolated groups. I don't think that we're going to be able to engage the kinds of division that we have, and particularly along the racial divide. Unless and until we learn history because at the moment, we're talking two different languages.”
Heller also teaches history at Indiana University South Bend.
"When I teach students some parts of what black history, African American history, but it's American history, and they're like, why did I why am I just learning this," he said.
But why do we teach history, the way we teach history?
“I think that one of the reasons we don't learn the depth of the history and the breadth of it, is to impart to maintain the powers that are in power. It serves their interests, not ours," he said.
So why is it important to adequately teach black history? For that answer, we head to Benton Harbor Area Schools, a district with a student body that is 98% black.
"Black history means for Benton Harbor Area Schools excellence in the community, excellence in our state and excellent across the country," Townsel said. “The entire Benton Harbor community has made an impact across our globe. And it's important for our young people to see who those changemakers are.”
For Superintendent Dr. Andrae Townsell, black history’s importance goes far beyond just adequately teaching history.
"You must consider majority-black students attend our public education system. So it should be a priority that those students understand their history, where they've come from where they're going, and how they'll continue to do excellent things in our society," he said. “I think educators can continue to infuse black history in our curriculum by just paying attention to that objective, our objective must be relatable and a part of real-world solutions.”
But Heller, among others, says there is still a long way to real change and it’s not just students who need to learn.
“I think many of our teachers don't actually know this history as well. I don't think they've adequately been taught. And so it really at this point, takes effort, you really have to spend some energy to learn this history. And that they're really not doing their kids and their students a favor by omitting this," Heller said. “I think we still have a ways to go. Because I think particularly in your primary schools, primary secondary schools, most teachers rely on textbooks. And unless we change the narratives in the textbooks, then we're not going to get history taught differently.”
“Black history doesn't have a section in the textbooks, they should," Townsel said. "If you really want to get a young person engaged, you must connect the objective to what's going on in our real world, and black excellence is in our real world and they should learn about that."
There have been strides already made by teachers at the local level and it seems as more eyes are on this issue, there is a closer lens to making these changes.
The first step might just have to be throwing out these textbooks, but that has a cost that some schools may not be able to afford during these trying times.