On Feb. 1, 2017, at an event to kick off and commemorate Black History Month, Donald Trump described Frederick Douglass as "somebody who's done an amazing job." Putting aside the bizarre verb tense, this is the type of compliment you might casually pay to a salesperson who had a great quarter. It's a pretty detached way to pay tribute to a former slave and renowned orator who worked to abolish slavery and fought for the rights of marginalized people throughout his life. It's clear that Trump has, at best, a surface-level understanding of who Frederick Douglass was.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump is not alone. Many Americans, particularly white Americans, have a cursory understanding of black history. This is problematic in a society that has struggled since its birth with racial injustice and discrimination. But it's especially troubling now, at a time when racial tension and racist rhetoric simmer in news headlines and political discourse. Today's students are living in a society where race is front and center, and they will have a hard time processing the issues of the present if they aren't well grounded in the issues of the past. The good news is that educators and parents have an opportunity to rectify this, and now's the time to do it.
Black history laid the foundation for much of American history and, in fact, there would be no America if not for the contributions of African Americans. Yet the study of black history has generally centered on a handful of prominent figures. For example, you've surely learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but have you ever heard of Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who helped put John Glenn into orbit? Despite relentless workplace discrimination, she persevered and was pivotal to the US space program. She's now the subject of a book and major movie called Hidden Figures, but imagine how many young people this story could have inspired over the last 50 years. Why do we tolerate such exclusions?
The uncomfortable truth is that a great deal of black history represents white America at its worst, and some educators have a hard time teaching it.
The uncomfortable truth is that a great deal of black history represents white America at its worst, and some educators have understandably had a hard time teaching it. As a result, what is taught often takes the form of a sanitized and scrubbed version of history. In 2015, reports showed that a major geography textbook published by McGraw-Hill Education and adopted by the Texas Board of Education referred to slaves as "workers" in a chapter on global immigration. The book was ultimately corrected, but teaching false narratives such as these greatly diminishes the oppression and marginalization of African Americans and grossly distorts American history as a whole.
In a time when it has become increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction, the antidote may be to take a long, hard look at history. A distorted or incomplete view of slavery and its ongoing legacy of systemic discrimination makes it impossible for students to understand the black experience in America today. To the contrary, a clear and honest understanding of the past gives us a lens to examine the present and anticipate the future. As the quote widely attributed to Mark Twain goes, history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. How can we understand Trayvon Martin if we don't study Emmett Till?
We are entering an era when marginalized groups are dealing with increasingly hostile discourse and complex legal battles, and studying black history helps us contextualize and process these issues. It's important to understand that some of the worst forms of racial violence and discrimination against black people were legal during slavery and Jim Crow. Just because something is legal doesn't make it just, and a deeper look at history may help students think critically about the laws and policies of their own time. The ongoing civil rights struggles of women, the LGBTQ community, and immigrants are likely going to intensify under the Trump administration. In the spirit of hope and perseverance, black history teaches us that hard-fought progress is possible for historically oppressed groups, and this can be seen in major civil rights victories like the Voting Rights Act.
Dr. Shaun Harper, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of an upcoming book on race on college campuses, has said that all white college students should take a course on race. I agree, but I would argue that students should start learning about race and the history of racial inequality at a much younger age. While some of the history is difficult, it is possible to find age-appropriate learning tools for students as young as kindergarten. It's also getting easier to find resources that go beyond what is widely taught. PBS has put together a list of little-known facts about black history. Flocabulary, a web-based learning program that I cofounded, recently published a free collection of music videos covering major figures, themes, and events in black culture. And while Black History Month is an important time to teach and celebrate this content, it can and should be part of the standard curriculum all year long.
We have a president who will not highlight the contributions of historically marginalized people, during Black History Month or otherwise, and he is likely to perpetuate widely accepted distortions of the past. In an era of "alternative facts," it's imperative that we educate our children to be thoughtful, informed citizens. Facing our past, both the good and the bad, will help us make better decisions for our future.