Whose job is it to teach Black History?

“Marcus Garvey had the idea back in the day, doing for self, keeping the way……..”

One of the principles of my blog is Creative Thought and a key focus is Education. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while now, and with Black History Month here, the time has come to put pen to paper, as they say. It’s a sensitive topic, and it may upset some readers, but I think that it’s a conversation worth having and a question worth asking. If you disagree with me here, that’s okay and it’s actually a good thing. Please leave a respectful comment below this piece. With that out of the way, let’s jump in.

Whose job is it to teach Black History? One of my most vivid memories of high school is my mother, and I believe other black parents, writing a letter to the Principal of my high school about a Black History Month program which he may have cancelled during my brother’s senior year. Around that time, and probably since, there was the sentiment that there needed to be more black history taught in the United States’ schools.

I always pondered this myself, and I wondered if this job should fall to our schools which in some instances are very, very diverse. My thoughts always settled on time and practicality. While the descendants of African slaves (my ancestors) were critical in the inception and then the construction of the United States, is there enough time during an eight to nine-month school year to cover every aspect of African American history? After all, the United States is now comprised of several races, ethnic groups and cultures.

As I’m getting older, I’m becoming more of a Marcus Garvey-type in that I believe that we as black people can and should do for ourselves as much as possible, and not look to other groups as much. Thus we should be responsible for passing down our own history, or at least clarifying, correcting, and supplementing what’s taught in the schools. In addition to the practicality of time described above, I have two other reasons.

One is that other races and ethnic groups seem to take the passing on of their culture and history into their own hands. As discussed in my second vlogcast on my new Big Discussions YouTube channel, when I was postdoctoral scientist at the Wadsworth Center in Albany, NY, I was in a lab that was 95% Chinese. Likewise, my advisor and his wife were from mainland China, and their two children were being raised as first generation United States citizens. In casual talk my advisor’s wife shared with me that both of their children attended a Chinese school on the weekends.

That meant that they wanted their children to learn the intricacies of their culture and history above and beyond what they were learning in their respective school systems. Other groups seem to do the same thing: Jewish people, Arabic people, etc. I’ve observed that Arabic communities continue to retain their customs from countries like Pakistan, for example, even while their children are born here in the United States and are ‘westernized’.

This does of course bring to light the paradox that we African Americans face in that we don’t have a culture besides that which we were born into here in the United States. Some of us argue to this day that the United States isn’t our true home. Others feel that using the qualifier ‘African’ in front of American is an insult for us, as we have every right to be here. White Americans are also seldom referred to as ‘Euro’ Americans.

My final reason for saying that we’re responsible for our own history is accuracy. After all, who would know our history better than us? Just like in the media, I think that he or she who controls the historical narratives, controls perceptions, personal identities, self-esteem, etc. Images matter and this is why the movie Hidden Figures was big deal for example. As a black scientist myself, I’m very passionate about shinning the light on our historic black scientists such as Percy Julian, and astronauts Dr. Ronald E. McNair and Lieutenant Colonel Michael P. Anderson.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the figures who is most synonymous with Black History Month. He is lionized and even romanticized these days and as we know, it wasn’t always that way. While we know that he was the figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement and that he opposed white racist elements in the south, what isn’t discussed is how he was perceived by other black people of his time in an open and transparent way.

A black elder from the “Baby Boomer” generation who grew up in the south, once shared with me that Dr. King had numerous black detractors as well, and there were in fact other black people who wanted to take his life. I was surprised to hear this revelation, as I’d never heard about it before. The same was true of Dr. King’s extramarital affairs which Dr. Michael Eric Dyson discussed in one of his books about Dr. King.

The point here is not to besmudge the great Dr. King, but instead to emphasize the importance of a balanced historical perspective – telling both the good and the bad. I suspect that generations from now, people will be unaware of Reverend Jesse Jackson’s disparaging comments about President Barrack Obama leading up to his historic election in 2008, and that they’ll only remember the picturesque scene of Reverend Jackson crying at Grant Park on election night 2017 shortly after Senator John McCain conceded.

I’m going to close by extending this world history. In my “Global Studies” courses back at Hutch-Tech High School in Buffalo, NY, I didn’t learn anything about “The Moors” – explorers and tradesmen from Africa who occupied Spain in the early 700s. I first heard about them from a friend from Buffalo who I’ll call “Kenny”, who was and is very, very passionate about African world history. We as African Americans probably could and should know more about mainland Africa beyond what we learn in class and see on the news and in the media – the good, the bad and the ugly.

When I look back at my youth, one woman comes to mind in terms of actively spreading black history beyond the jurisdiction of our schools. Back in my home city of Buffalo, NY, Ms. Eva Doyle was actually my very first science teacher in the second grade I believe. As I got older though I saw that she was very active and passionate about the teaching and spreading of black history. She became a fixture in our local black newspapers and in the community in general and continues her work today, setting an example for all of us.

These are just some of my thoughts on Black History Month, and I hope that I haven’t upset anyone. In a way it’s funny that it’s the shortest month of the year, but at the same time it’s something that we as black people should be learning throughout the year. In today’s digital age, we’re very fortunate that vast amounts of information are available online to us via a simple Google searches and via video platforms like YouTube. It wasn’t like this years ago.

The quote at the beginning of this piece is a lyric from the hip hop track “Black Star Line” by a group called “Brand Nubian” I listened to when I was a teen. It was from one of “Lord Jamar’s” verses. This track was based on Marcus Garvey. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s as opposed to modern times, hip hop and rap music had educational, social and political messages, and I learned quite a bit of black history from it. The visual at the beginning of this piece is from the 36th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration hosted by the Washington Inter-Alumni Council of the United Negro College Fund., which is regularly supported by my Johnson C. Smith University Washington DC Alumni Chapter.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this one, you might also enjoy:

Are you Cooning? Thoughts on Black America’s new favorite racial slur, critical thought, and groupthink
A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian
A Black History Month interview with Dr. Vernon Morris part one
A Black History Month look at West Indian Archie
A review of Marvel’s Black Panther
A review of Hidden Figures
A review of All Eyez On Me

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