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The vilification of Black history is exactly why we need it
February 28, 2023
In August 2022, as part of a new law that banned “sexually explicit“ content in schools, nearly 300 books were pulled off the shelves in Missouri. Across the nation, schools and districts everywhere went into a book-banning frenzy. Even books that were not graphically or sexually explicit were not safe from scrutiny, with books like “Stamped” and “The Hate U Give” being targeted by groups like No Left Turn and Moms for Liberty, most likely because they could expose students to the left’s “radical indoctrination.” However, many of these books — especially the ones challenged by No Left Turn — featured Black protagonists and criticism of racism in general, turning antiracist theories into items on a “leftist political agenda.”
This vilification of Black history begins with books, but it doesn’t end there. It continues with colorblind parenting and the tantrums thrown over Black history being taught in schools. It continues with the stronghold on the Confederate flag and the prolonged refusal to “see race.” It continues with social media’s capitalization on fear of antiracism and the whitewashing of history. And this vilification twists fear and America’s inability to honestly discuss race together, creating a gigantic, terrifying monster out of Black history.
The historical oppression of Black people has been ingrained in our society since before the United States was created. Yet, there continues to be a widespread debate over to what degree Black history should be taught — or if it should be taught at all. Whereas Black History Month and its figures are constantly misused, Black history courses have suddenly become the bane of society. The vilification of Black history and the bastardization of notions of racial and social equity has become common and detrimental to our students’ education. Still, to understand how to dismantle the attack on Black history, we first must understand the problem and its underlying causes.
The spectacle of Black History Month
In 1926, Black historian and journalist Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week, which has, over the years, expanded into Black History Month. With this week’s creation, Woodson wanted to commemorate the liberation and numerous achievements that Black people had attained, especially after their intense struggle with slavery and its aftereffects.
Today, in Black cultures across the U.S., Black History Month is a month to celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of Black Americans throughout history. In St. Louis, the city and its surrounding territories hold celebrations featuring St. Louis’s rich African American history to honor and acknowledge the millions of African Americans who struggled through racial oppression. At West, the Black Student Union (BSU) has held events that commemorate Black culture, something that senior and president of Parkway West’s Black Student Union (BSU) Lauren McLeod appreciates.
“The senior class of 2020 was very involved and engaged in BSU. [The group] was adamant about doing Black History Month activities. We did door decorating [and had] fundraising at basketball games at concessions. We also had a film night, [selling] tickets to watch ‘The Hate U Give’ in the cafeteria,” McLeod said. “It’s important to highlight our history and continue to uplift Black voices [to] work toward a more diverse and inclusive society.”
However, outside of the Black community, Black History Month is often an excuse to continue the whitewashing of Black history.
Leaders such as civil rights activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks have been continuously pushed forward as Black History Month’s token figures and have thus received some of the most whitewashing. In current times, their messages are ultimately simplified down to “everyone should be equal,” when, in fact, their points were far more nuanced and complex than that. Because of the whitewashing of Black figures and history, Black voices are constantly disregarded and passed over for an expurgated version of history that favors talk of “equality” and “harmony” rather than recognizing the real struggles that Black people have faced at the hand of systemic inequalities.
It is perhaps this whitewashing that contributes to Americans’ lack of knowledge of Black figures and history in America. Furthermore, this directly influences misunderstandings of why and how Black History Month is celebrated, leading to the all too well-known counter of “What about White History Month?” despite the typical year-long focus on white history.
Furthermore, the whitewashing of Black History Month sketches Black history as history that must be sanitized to be palatable for the general public. It’s not uncommon to see people pushing racial inequities and inequalities to the side by utilizing bland, same-old narratives: that race does not matter, that people are “color blind,” that racism is over because there is no longer legal, race-based slavery or segregation. But the truth is that race does matter, and it has for a long time. It’s mattered in the numerous gaps in healthcare that lead to the Black maternal mortality rate being significantly higher than both non-Hispanic white women and Hispanic women; it’s mattered in the historical redlining that led to negative effects on today’s students’ education; it’s mattered in the Black-white generational wealth gap that determines both economic security and political influence that a household can have.
Race, in a societal sense, matters, so “color blindness” isn’t the message that we should be emphasizing; instead, the message that we should all ultimately learn is that it’s better to embrace the differences of each group and that begins with learning about their history.
Pushback in classrooms
Black history should be celebrated and recognized for more than one month of the year, and many organizations are beginning to become cognizant of this fact.
On Feb. 1, the College Board — an organization that oversees Advanced Placement (AP) classes and exams, along with national testing processes such as the SAT — released the official framework for their new AP African American Studies class. This contemporary class studies Black cultures inside and outside of America and was piloted in selected schools and states beginning in the fall of 2022.
AP African American Studies is widely regarded as an agent of curriculum diversity. Introducing the AP African American Studies class will likely increase representation in the classroom, especially in predominantly white schools like West. The goal is to expose a significant population of the U.S. to history that needs to be taught. McLeod, who has taken several AP history courses, believes this class will help diversify the primarily European-focused curriculum.
“[Black history] has been highlighted in my AP courses, but not very well and not on a larger scale,” McLeod said. “So many societies [and cultures] were built off of Black culture, people and minds, but it’s so often overshadowed and taken for granted. [AP African American Studies] would help in [terms of] representation for a lot of people, and a lot more people would be inclined to take it because they want to see themselves represented in history books.”
It’s sad to see that people are so threatened by history. We can’t avoid it — it happened. People cannot do anything about it — slavery, segregation, all of these things have happened and have systemic roots in America and [worldwide].” — Lauren McLeod
It’s sad to see that people are so threatened by history. We can’t avoid it — it happened. People cannot do anything about it — slavery, segregation, all of these things have happened and have systemic roots in America and [worldwide].”
— Lauren McLeod
However, the introduction of this class has seen criticism on the belief that it’s unnecessary. Florida governor Ron DeSantis was perhaps the loudest voice of this backlash, with his administration blocking the course from being taught in Florida. DeSantis, who was also the face of the Stop WOKE Act — a bill that aimed to prohibit discussion of specific topics dealing with race, especially in schools — implied that the course was inaccurate and unlawful, even though this course has been in the works for over a decade. Its writers have also been working with several universities to bring the African diaspora’s diverse history to life.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with questioning a course, especially one that isn’t typically covered in regular history classes. However, the discourse around AP African American Studies, in particular, has shifted from genuine questioning to outright nitpicking. Opposing parties, like DeSantis, claim that adding Black history to the curriculum will increase “white guilt” and dissension among students. However, the official framework for AP African American Studies reveals that the course will explore Black history and culture, from old African kingdoms to the African diaspora in the modern era.
“[The backlash] all stems [from] ignorance and miseducation,” McLeod said. “It’s sad to see that people are so threatened by history. We can’t avoid it — it happened. People cannot do anything about it — slavery, segregation, all of these things have happened and have systemic roots in America and [worldwide]. Just because people don’t like it doesn’t mean they can reject the idea.”
After Florida’s ban on the course, four more states have already begun reviewing it to see if it’s eligible for cuts or restrictions. Although this class is fundamentally consistent with large-scale AP classes like AP European History and culture-based AP classes such as AP Japanese Language and Culture and AP French Culture and Language, this course has been subjected to the same fate as Black History Month: criticism and overblown restrictions.
With two notable examples of heavy pushback on Black history, we must understand why this opposition exists.
To further examine the underlying problem within the denigration of teaching Black history in the classroom, we must first look at a legal theory that has shaken the nation: Critical Race Theory (CRT). First developed by academics and scholars in the 1970s and ’80s, CRT is an academic and legal theory that asserts that systemic racism — a form of racism that is immersed into laws and regulations of any society — is a part of American culture and has been since America first became a country.
Despite CRT being rarely, if ever, taught in K-12 classes, many people latched on to the word, turning CRT into a symbol for “liberal propaganda” and “wokeness” — which, coincidentally, went through the same bastardizing process. This fear was capitalized on by media outlets and personalities like advocacy group PragerU and political commentator Tucker Carlson, which exploded CRT into an influential talking point. However, it’s important to note that although the language targeted toward AP African American Studies — and other classes that place a spotlight on Black history — often mimics criticism of the principles of CRT or “liberal propaganda,” these terms do not apply to these classes because they’re not classes based on CRT or any political ideology. It is simply history.
It’s understandable that the media’s misrepresentation of Black history would cause wariness around the subject. However, the vilification of implementing elements of Black history into schools is wholly ignorant and unreasonable. Similar actions have occurred in the past: in 1973, a principal suspended Black students for celebrating Black History Month because the observance would bring divisiveness; likewise, laws have limited the education on racism and the history of people of color as recently as 2022. In addition, there has been a trend of “censoring” Black history dating back to the mid-20th century, which ultimately means attempting to scrap out anything that explains America’s past flaws.
This sustained ignorance contributes to the infantilization and miseducation of especially non-Black people when it comes to nuances and injustices that stem from the oppression that Black people have faced throughout the history of our country. While many kids of color — Black and brown kids in particular — must deal with the effects of systemic racism in everyday life, generally, white kids can remain blissfully ignorant of racial complexities, contributing to infantilization when dealing with racial nuances. Turning a blind side to America’s history only perpetuates and enables stereotypes rooted in racism and prejudice to grow, thus creating a preventable loop of discrimination and miseducation, which does not allow our students to learn.
“History is truth. We should want our students to learn about various cultures and the history of our country. There are some people who don’t believe in that history or don’t want to face it,” assistant principal and BSU sponsor Kate Piffel said. “People that are alive now are not the ones who created the problems and struggles that we’ve had in the past, but I do think that we owe it to human beings to acknowledge [this history] and move forward in change to make this world a better place.”
The bastardization of CRT — and wokeness in general — also continues to paint Black people as the “other” in American society, though Black people have been in the U.S. before it was even the U.S. This means that instead of having Black history normalized in most school curriculums, the idea of Black history being put into the school curriculum is often met with outrage and pushback, as if it is an anomaly to even think about mingling Black history with “regular history.” By continuing to paint Black history as “liberal propaganda” or too “woke” for students to learn about, we continue to perpetuate racial division, cultural inequality and cultural and racial ignorance.
Our education is the backbone of our society, and by not teaching multiple sides of history — especially history that explains why certain disparities and systems are the way they are today — we are doing a disservice to the future members of our society: our students.
“If people took the time to sit down and understand that African American history doesn’t pose a threat to society, [they’d realize that] it can only help students be a more global and well-rounded person with a newfound perspective,” McLeod said.
Black history is not “indoctrination.” It is history. Vilifying Black history is not the way to create open-minded, culturally competent students; there’s no reason we should pretend that it is.
Dismantling the vilification surrounding Black history begins with understanding that a lesson on Black history is nothing more or less than that — a lesson on Black history. Unfortunately, America, the land of the brave and home of the “free,” has not delegated its social freedom to all its citizens and inhabitants equally or equitably. This inequity is a part of history and thus needs to be taught.
Systemic racism can be a difficult and uncomfortable conversation, but it’s important to teach those atrocious elements to learn from them. The purpose in teaching Black history in classrooms is not to guilt white students; it’s to teach them and all students. In the same way that teaching about other difficult subjects — like antisemitism and sexism — does not put the blame on the students taking the class, adding Black history to the curriculum does not put the blame on the individual, but rather serves as an explanation of how the past contributes to the current matters of today.
Furthermore, it’s far from true that all aspects of Black history are shameful — much of Black History Month aims to appreciate and acknowledge the many accomplishments of Black Americans, even in times of oppression.
Our school has previously presented lessons on Black history through some of its extracurricular activities. For example, West’s BSU has provided a place for Black students to learn and discuss what it is like to be a Black student in a predominantly white school and district, including monthly meetings and opportunities to lead in the school and the local community. These meetings often have an emphasis placed on Black history.
“We asked [the students] what it is that they wanted to get out of these [BSU] meetings, and one of the things they said was, ‘We don’t know our own Black history,’” Piffel said. “That was a huge eye-opener for me, so we’ve started and tried to incorporate some kind of Black history lesson throughout the year.”
However, the discussion of Black history must also be consistently extended to West’s non-Black students to increase exposure to diverse history beyond what’s typically taught in the classroom. This new educational representation will not only provide a new outlook on parts of history that the “victors” have overridden but it will also bring several nuances of Black history to light, especially for those living inside a cultural bubble. To further this objective, librarians Brian Welch and Lauren Reusch ran several Black History Month library events featuring Black culture. For example, students could participate in African drumming, an African American read-in and other craft activities highlighting Black culture.
“The librarians have done an awesome job of creating this opportunity for AcLab where anyone can sign up,” Piffel said. “It’s about learning. [The events are] about learning about others. It’s an event for students to learn about other people, and what I see it as [is] an opportunity.”
While these activities raise awareness, the conversation about Black history must also be pursued year-round, not just for one month. Black History Month is the beginning of a dialogue surrounding Black history, but for long-term success, we must be willing to extend the learning opportunity throughout all months instead of just February. Whether that’s through curriculum changes or the addition of new courses — particularly in history and social studies, similar to the AP African American Studies class that the College Board is implementing — to supplement current lessons and teachings, schools and districts must be multiculturally aware to set all of our students up for prosperity.
“[Parkway] doesn’t need an excuse or a reason to celebrate their students, especially their minority students. The Equity Task Force and Equal Opportunity Schools are working toward [mending] community divides, but educating [our] student body on Black history would do [a lot],” McLeod said. “Racial [issues] can run rampant in Parkway because people are just uneducated about race. We should implement change and make our student body more culturally sustainable and culturally aware [to] avoid cultural ignorance.”
For our students to succeed in a globalized world and become curious, capable and caring adults, we must stop the vilification of Black history. This begins with the dismantling of generations’ worth of stereotypes and continues with the education of our current students. By working to decrease the stigma surrounding Black history, we will cultivate a level of cultural awareness that will, in turn, allow students an empathetic understanding of various groups rather than a manipulated, white-washed and villainized version of history.