By Katelyn Barker
Howard University News Service
Bernadette Johnson is one of many parents who are concerned about what their children will be able to learn about their ancestry, because of the shift in incorporating Black history in schools.
“I have one son, and I want him to learn the truth about his community,” says Johnson, a stay-at-home mom from Fayetteville, Georgia. “Learning the truth helps students appreciate where they come from and in turn know where they are going.”
Freedom of speech in schools across the nation has been under attack, because of legislative bills that limit what content can be taught in public schools. A growing number of lawmakers are pushing to ban books, materials and entire courses that expose the truth about America’s connection to slavery and racism as well as anything that touches on race in some cases, such as biographies of historical figures. Proponents of Black history note that it helps to improve race relations in addition to racial pride.
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and contributors to “The 1619 Project” ruffled the feathers of many Americans and lawmakers with its publication in the New York Times Magazine 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia. “The 1619 Project” and later its book in 2021 were greeted with both acclaim and disapproval for discussing democracy and exposing the truth behind slavery and racism in America.
This exposure even caused former President Donald Trump to respond with his own “1776 Commission,” which is meant to maintain and encourage “patriotic education.” Trump said that “‘The 1619 Project’ and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.”
“The 1619 Project” simply ignited the conversation about racism and slavery being taught in school, and it also inspired many to question the validity of the history that students will be taught in the future.
In 2021 Jeffery Sachs, a researcher reported that 35 states introduced approximately 137 bills that limited ideas that schools can teach regarding racism and more controversial topics.
“A teacher would have to be very, very careful about how they discuss something like, let’s say, fascism or racism or antisemitism,” Sachs said in an NPR interview.
“These are political beliefs, and it means that teachers are going to have to second-guess whether they can describe that political belief in an honest a way as we wish, for fear of falling afoul of this bill.”
This is not the first time the government has taken a stance in banning books that teach America’s ties to racism, slavery and segregation in the land that claims “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.”
In the 1850s, many states in the United States banned the distribution of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. According to Claire Parfait, historian and author of “The Publishing History of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852–2002,” the white American public was so against the distribution of the book that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was burned by slave owners. People were even jailed for simply owning a copy of the controversial book. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was extremely controversial in the South because this region of the country was pro-slavery, and this book went against ideals and beliefs taught during that time.
The true history of Black Americans in this country has been blocked from being exposed to the public in the past. This banning has gone beyond books and has extended to the lack of celebration of Black history and Black figures during Black History Month.
Black History Month was first acknowledged as Negro History Week by Carter G. Woodson, a journalist, and his organization called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASLAH).
Eventually, Negro History Week became Black History Month and Woodson’s goal for schools in the United States to incorporate Black history within the curriculum was embraced by both predominately Black schools and predominately white institutions.
As time has progressed, due to the recent banning of textbooks and novels that touch upon slavery, America’s connection to segregation, Jim Crow, and the unfair treatment Black Americans receive from the government or white civilians in the past and present, many schools have failed to continue to embrace Black American history. Dora Jackson, 75, remembers a time when Black History Month was the highlight of her year in high school.
“I graduated in 1965 and I went to a predominately Black high school” Jackson said. “During Black History Month we had assemblies on Black History, but my school didn’t put an emphasis on racism and slavery. During Black History Month, my school mostly focused on powerful Black figures instead of the hardships we have endured.”
“I loved learning about my history. That education helped me appreciate who I am.”
Fast forward 54 years, the focus on Black history within American schools has not progressed. Schools continue to dance around the history of slavery and fail to understand how important the acknowledgement of slavery and racism is to American history.
“When it comes to anything Black history, at least in my school, everything is always rushed,” says Latisha Brown, a grade schoolteacher. “Things are always thrown together, and we only focus on the fluffy and happy parts of Black History.
“I’m happy we focus on any portion of Black history, but I feel like we can do so much more.”
The possible erasure of Black history is a serious possibility especially with government officials like Gov. Ron DeSantis expressing his strong disapproval towards an Advanced Placement African American class in Florida.
Even in DeSantis’s book, “Dreams from Our Founding Fathers,” this graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School minimized the important role slavery played in the progression of American civilization and U.S. economic well-being and profit.
“This is a scary time,” says Alida Abdullah, an educator from Southwest Atlanta. “I taught at a predominately Black school, and I feel like the progression of the times has changed how Black history is incorporated in schools.”
“When I was in school in the ’80s, my high school focused on Black figures like Martin Luther King and Malcom X, but now we focus on trailblazers from the past and trailblazers of now and the future.” Abdullah continued.
Some school systems around the country are even trying to ban books on trailblazers such as sports pioneers Hank Aaron and Wilma Rudolph.
“How can someone try to erase Black history?” Abdullah asks. “Black history is American history. There is no way around it.”
Parents and grandparents are also concerned about what their children learn when it concerns their ancestry. Virginia Beach native Lawanda Jackson, grandparent to a 3-year-old boy, believes the curriculum her grandson learns should be truthful and not sugarcoated. “I feel many Americans don’t want slavery or racism to be acknowledged within the school system, because they are embarrassed by the horrible things that have occurred,” Jackson said. “My ancestors deserve to have their stories told; good, bad, or indifferent.”
Organizations like the Freedom to Learn are taking a strong stance in the fight against book bans. On the Freedom to Learn Day of Action, the National Council of Negro Women led a rally in the nation’s capital to the College Board’s office to protest the board’s decision to weaken the AP African American Studies curriculum being taught in schools.
Shavon Arline-Bradley, president and CEO of the National Council of Negro Women, says that NCNW joined the rally to let the public know what Freedom to Learn really means. “[NCNW] wants to make sure that the world knows that Black History is American history.”
“We do not believe in the banning of books,” Arline-Bradley continued. “We want to ensure that our county’s Black history is present in curriculum all over the country. We want to put this country on notice. As a Black organization, we believe that there will be a political price to pay if you are someone in office who is not in alignment with anti-racism efforts.”
Freedom to Learn is one of many organizations fighting to ensure that students have the right to the truth in their respective classes. Learning about the past will only help prepare generations of today for the future. In the words of Gustavo Cerati “our future depends on how we understand the past.”
Katelyn Barker is a reporter for HUNewsService.com. This article is part of Howard’s Third Reparations project for the inaugural Solutions Journalism Student Media Challenge.