Teaching a History of Uncomfortable Truths

Black History Month is a time to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans in American history. Many educators tend to confine Black history to only one month. The truth is that Black history is not confined to one group of people for one month only. The trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Black people are American history itself. However, the winners of history’s battles tend to shape and mold the way history is told. HIStory is his to tell who wins the war. The winners of war in this country (United States) are the European settlers who colonized the east coast of the United States. The story told of the European settler is one of setting a political and economic foundation as well as manifest destiny. Told from a different perspective, the story of the European settler is one where he enslaved a people and stole land from another. With respect to the African who was enslaved, those who call themselves descendants of the enslaved have been shaped, molded and continue to be impacted by the plight of their ancestors; those enslaved and those under the thumb of Jim Crow. Slavery and segregation is not Black history in isolation… it is American history in its totality; more than 3 quarters of our nation’s existence has been one of slavery and segregation. History spoken from this perspective isn’t told from the “we shall overcome” or “we’ve overcame” narratives.  That perspective of history seeks to wrestle with uncomfortable truths to explore solution for how to live together with the knowledge of those uncomfortable truths.

When Black people traditionally say “Black history is 365 days a year,” White educators and some Black educators believe that means imparting a Black history fact or teaching slavery or civil rights in a month not named February. There is a place for facts about famous and not so famous Black people and their contributions. The Tom Joyner morning show, a popular Black morning radio show, offers a little known Black history fact each day. But education is all about making connections. If we can make connections, we can help kids internalize the information. Unfortunately, Black history is often in isolation from American history; in isolation of the political, economic and social challenges facing American society. We fail to speak in terms of those uncomfortable truths that can help us chart the path to help us live one with another. In order to teach Black history properly, we must speak in the language of uncomfortable truth. That does not mean to teach from a deficit model; “Black people were slaves,” “Black people had to face segregation,” “Black people continued to struggle while under the rule of a Black president.” It means teaching the truth of people not named Martin Luther King. It means teaching about the institutional mechanisms designed to prevent the political power, wealth building and social mobility of Black people – admitting and understand that American institutions at that time (and today) were White controlled. It means teaching that the psychological scars of slavery shaped the Black experience both internally (how Black people moved forward) and externally (how White people moved forward).

If you teach in an urban school, your students need to know that their lives are impacted by the uncomfortable truths of Black history. This perspective is not designed to make Black children feel sorry for themselves. This perspective is designed to help Black children understand the history that impacts the circumstance of their people. Here are some tips to help your information gather and teach that information.

ACTION STEPS

  1. DO NOT USE TRADITIONAL HISTORY TEXTBOOKS. Traditional history textbooks are written from a Eurocentric perspective. These will not give detailed information on the Black experience. Better documents to use are books written by scholars on matters of Black history and articles on the internet written by scholars, pundits and cultural critics.
  2. INVITE GUEST SPEAKERS FROM THE COMMUNITY. Black history isn’t removed from community. Community activism and advocacy is the foundations of Black history. Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama aren’t names of royalty, but they are people who started their journeys fighting on behalf of their communities. There is a wealth of Black history in your locations. Your schools may be named after African-Americans who contributed to the history in the neighborhood or in the region. Look for community activists, local church leadership or even the families of your students… invite these people to your classrooms and give them a platform to make Black history real to your students. It is one thing to learn about history… it is something completely different to have history speak directly to you live and in color.
  3. INTRODUCE BLACK PEOPLE WHO’VE MADE THE WHITE POWER STRUCTURE UNCOMFORTABLE. Malcolm X, Nat Turner, Robert F. Williams, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, The Black Panthers, MOVE… teach the students about those who scared American society as they approached racism and systematic oppression with anger. Whether you agree or disagree with their methods/tactics is not the point. The point is to expose students to the reality of how oppression and racism can make a people seek tangible ways of fighting that oppression. In addition, expose students to the valid arguments these individuals have made that may have been contrary to the “mainstream” acceptance of nonviolence.
  4. TEACH COINTELPRO. The U.S. government spied on civil rights leadership. J. Edgar Hoover spied on Malcolm X, MLK and the Black Panthers. They sent Black people in civil rights organizations as operatives to disrupt them… because they were feared; the Black Panthers in particular. Teach about how and why Fred Hampton was killed; teach about the partnership between working class Whites and the Black Panthers… and how the U.S. Government sought to shut it down. If you do not believe any of what I just said… do some research and get back to me.
  5. TEACH DR. KING POST 1965. MLK’s memory has been hijacked and whitewashed. All we hear of is the I Have a Dream speech (and only the dream half of the speech). Dr. King was more than that. Yes, he did lead a successful bus boycott and he facilitated the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 64 and 65. But in his final years, he opposed the war in Vietnam, called for the redistribution of wealth and desired that Black folks get their fair share of what was owed to them from slavery. He said that a riot was the language of the unheard. He was none too popular prior to his death. The day before he died, he wasn’t planning a race rally. He was planning a poor people’s march for jobs and housing… he said America defaulted on its check to Black folks. He said it was time to collect that check… Teach that King.
  6. TEACH REDLINING AND GERRYMANDERING. Redlining kept Black people from moving to specific neighborhoods occupied by White people. These communities were wealthier than where many Black folks lived. This practice prevented upwardly mobile Blacks from being upwardly mobile. Gerrymandering is a practice that uses census data to redistrict congressional districts to prevent Black voter majorities where Whites are outnumbered. This is a major reason why Congress continues to look so White. These two practices account for the economic and political disenfranchisement of Black people throughout multiple generations. Black people aren’t lazy… it is just that some White people are scare of losing their “majority.”
  7. PROMOTE GENEALOGY AMONG YOUR STUDENTS. Encourage your students to trace their family history as far as they can. Show them the various electronic resources at their disposal to help them research their family. Unfortunately, for many African Americans, to know of your origins back to the land of your people is a fantasy. Instill in your students their ability to do research to solve the puzzles of their lineage. It may be frustrating and uncomfortable for them, however, express to them that the rewards are great. Show them that just as important as learning Black history is uncovering your own.
  8. PURCHASE, READ, AND UNDERSTAND THE NEW JIM CROW BY MICHELLE ALEXANDER. Do exactly what you just read. There is too much for me to write however, a thorough reading of this text will help you understand the plight we see in many urban communities.
  9. INCORPORATE BLACK HISTORY THROUGHOUT YOUR CURRICULA. Don’t wait until February to speak of the accomplishments of Black people or of the contributions in science, technology, politics and medicine by Black people. When fitting, include information about Black history as it relates to whatever content area you teach. If your administration seeks not to do it, make sure that you do.
  10. DON’T BE AFRAID OF NOT KNOWING ALL THE ANSWERS. What you don’t know, research yourself. What you haven’t experienced, have empathy. If you are White or are Black and unaware of your own history, that is okay. Be a willing vessel and you can achieve amazing things with your students. So much so that they begin to look at you differently and trust you to teach them other things. Also, do not be afraid to learn from your students. They may have some answers that you don’t. Don’t be intimidated by that. Humble yourself and learn. Lifelong learning is for adults too.

It may seem like a lot of what I’ve laid out isn’t the most fun or comfortable. However, to understand the Black experience in America is to understand that our comfort has rarely been something we could worry about. Rather, our strength and resourcefulness is what kept us in spite of the obstacles against us. Teaching the history, the truth, that defines our direction and facilitates our freedom is the best gift to give a young Black student. Adding sugar to anything is bad for you. Sugar coating Black history is dangerous to anybody’s health.

Let’s continue to press towards the mark!

Below you will find a number of resources (this is not a canon, just a resource to get you started):

BOOKS:

  • The Slave Community by John Blassingame
  • Blues People by Amari Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
  • Africa’s Gift to America by J.A. Rogers
  • Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. DuBois
  • The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. DuBois
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Manchild in the Promise Land by Claude Brown
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
  • Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch
  • Pillar of Fire by Taylor Branch
  • At Canaan’s Edge by Taylor Branch
  • Brainwashed by Tom Burrell
  • Capital Men by Philip Dray
  • The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist

WEBSITES:

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