This year, Black History Month has coincided with a very public debate over the content of a new Advanced Placement course in African American studies. The controversy highlights the progress schools have made in recent years incorporating more aspects of Black history and the Black experience into classrooms — as well as the political challenges inherent in teaching about race and racism.
We asked Bellwarians to reflect on what was missing from their own education about Black history, and what they hope today’s students will get a chance to learn. Their responses are below.
Montreece Hardy, executive assistant, Core
Two names were missing from Black History for me as a child – Katherine Johnson and Alice Walker. I was infatuated with NASA and aeronautics until the age of 17. When I realized visual impairment impacted my following the path of Mae C. Jemison, it would have been nice to know about an alternate path of space science explored by Katherine Johnson. And had I known about Alice Walker’s life with visual impairment discussed alongside her success in writing, it would have been encouraging as I, too, have had a passion for writing since third grade. These women’s success stories would have been a helpful representation of what could have been possible for this Black girl’s trajectory and striving to have a successful limitless career in space research or writing.
Christine Wade, associate partner, Strategic Advising
One major gap that stands out to me was in celebrating aspects of Black communities’ cultures and traditions, including those that have shaped broader culture and traditions to this day. Over time I’ve learned about the strong influence Black history has had on things like the food we eat, music we listen to, and art we enjoy (just to name a few). While big events and figures are certainly important, and often signal a significant shift or impact, I think that being able to appreciate the impact on noticeable parts of everyday life is also very meaningful and I wish I had better understood this part of history growing up.
Brian Robinson, senior analyst, Policy and Evaluation
I didn’t learn about Black history in school. Sure, I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. But I didn’t learn about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I didn’t learn about Juneteenth. I didn’t learn about Emmett Till. I didn’t learn about Henrietta Lacks. I didn’t learn about the many contributions Black Americans made in this country, and really in the world. I didn’t learn about Black history until I got much older and began reading on my own, watching documentaries, and visiting museums. It’s important for all schools to do a better job of teaching the entirety of Black history (aka American History!) — the good, bad, and everything in between.
Andy Jacob, senior director, External Relations
It wasn’t until I became a history major in college that I realized just how little I’d learned in my K-12 career about Reconstruction — and how crucial that era is to understanding so much of the Black history that gets more airtime in classrooms, like the 20th-century civil rights movement. I don’t think nearly enough kids learn that the country had achieved nearly all the reforms in the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act almost 100 years earlier. For example, did you learn in school that for a few years after the end of the Civil War, Black (male) suffrage was basically a reality in the South, to the point where South Carolina had a majority Black legislature? I sure didn’t! We had a real multiracial democracy within our grasp — until the federal government just walked away from it. Imagine how different American history might have been if we hadn’t taken that century-long step backward. But too few students even know it happened, much less get a chance to grapple with its significance.