The Need for Black History on the Syllabus

  • From established authors to young activists, the call to make African American history an integral part of school curricula is growing.
  • The demand was emphasized on The Time Is Now: Race and Resolution, a special show hosted by OZY Editor-in-Chief Carlos Watson on A&E Networks on Monday.

America’s youth is at the forefront of the demand for change and for an end to policy brutality and systemic racism, highlighted by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. But there’s one tool many of them aren’t armed with: adequate education about Black history.

Over the years, “mainstream social studies curriculum either largely ignored Black history or misrepresented the subject,” writes LaGarrett J. King, associate professor at University of Missouri, in his article “The Status of Black History in U.S. Schools and Society.” And while that’s beginning to change, there’s still a long way to go.

The calls for that shift within American education to be sped up are increasing — a demand visible on The Time Is Now: Race and Resolution, a special show hosted by OZY Editor-in-Chief Carlos Watson on A&E Networks on Monday. “There are a lot of white people who have very limited understanding of American history and understanding of how people of color factor into that history,” said guest Jemele Hill, a staff writer for The Atlantic.  

But it’s not only white Americans who need those lessons, says Jalen Thompson, a 17-year-old student activist from Missouri who led a massive protest in O’Fallon earlier this month. “We aren’t educated enough in our schools about our own history,” he told Watson. “Black kids go to school and learn about white people.”

Sure, the U.S. has designated February as Black History Month since 1976, but according to Hill, that’s not nearly enough: “This is about Black history being American history.”

Research into K-12 public schools by the National Museum of African American History and Culture revealed that only 8 to 9 percent of total class time in U.S. classrooms is devoted to Black history. And while a number of universities in the country now have African American history programs, Douglas Flowe, an assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, says they are “a developing process.” 

“Students don’t really learn about Black history other than the very typical histories about Martin Luther King or some light reading about the civil rights movement,” says Flowe. Call for in-depth teaching of Black history in schools are also growing in the United Kingdom and Canada.

But how important is it to ensure that Black historians teach Black history? Voices of color, Flowe says, bring a unique perspective when teaching history or addressing social problems. “African American teachers have the capacity to engage African American students on a level that often comes from understanding their circumstances and perspectives,” he says, although he believes it’s important for students to study Black history no matter who is teaching the subject.  

Here’s what Flowe tells his white students: “I hope you would take some of what you learned in this class with you. Because if you find yourself in some position of power — to write policy for a company or a state or nationally — it would be great if you were to take what you learned in this class into account.” 

It’s only when students of all races understand America’s racial caste system that they can change it, Flowe says. For that to happen, education is critical. As Jalen Thompson said: “Our history isn’t locked in. We have to find it ourselves.”

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