Headlines earlier this month caught some Americans by surprise and referenced historic events in the United States that many had never heard of.
The overwhelming response was that very little Black history is taught in schools. But while most educators argue it’s American history, decades of obstacles have kept it out of their classrooms.
Some of history’s most memorable stories have been brought to life on the silver screen, not in school books.
Earlier this month many Americans heard for the first time about the 1921 massacre in Tulsa that left 36 dead and an entire community of thriving businesses and homes wiped out.
Some learned about Juneteenth, the holiday marking the day enslaved Africans living in Texas learned that The Emancipation had ended more than two years prior and that they were free.
There’s a saying that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” But how is it that there’s so much we don’t know about American history, especially when it comes to the contributions and stories of Black people?
Dr. Angela Searcy is a child development specialist and education consultant.
“I think that people are uncomfortable with it and they don’t understand how to approach it,” she said.
She found the signals from administrators were clear.
“The message is, it’s a taboo subject,” she said. “So then you feel nervous and worried and conflicted or concerned when you’re bringing up a subject that no one discusses. It definitely leaves you in a space where you don’t know how to move forward.”
Pemon Rami is the former director of education at the DuSable Museum.
“In 1968 I was a member of a student group that held a series of protests and walkouts with the intent of having black history taught in schools,” he said.
Rami would go on to challenge the education system again decades later by developing a curriculum to be used across all subjects, city and statewide.
The group working on the project even held training sessions for teachers who wanted to include the lessons but there was still push back.
“The teachers felt that if it wasn’t something there were going to be tested around, they couldn’t take away from the general curriculum,” he said. “The second part was that a number of people felt that by teaching African American history it would make the students angry. Our position was that knowledge of your history will give you a vibrant sense of what the future is.”
Their work went largely ignored.
Would it be easier for teachers at a predominantly Black charter school to work more Black history in into a curriculum? Journalist, activist and former teacher Samuel Adams says no.
“I literally had to create the syllabi. The fake one that I sent to administration and then the real one that I gave my students,” he said. “I did that for three years. I was literally a teacher working behind enemy lines. That’s how I saw it. … My principal told me to stop bringing up the subject that we needed to change the literary canon. So if that happened to me at a school that’s all Black and all male, I know what happens at these other institutions that are supposedly trying to have an education that is not uncomfortable for their student or their parents.”
The discomfort with some of America’s more harrowing moments of history is only part of the problem.
“Let’s make no mistake about this, our schools worship at the altars of standardized tests, Adams said. “And those tests are not geared toward having an inclusive, diverse curriculum.”
Leslie Harris is a professor of history at Northwestern University, with a focus on the history of slavery in the United States. She said to not tell the full story of slavery, is to not tell the full story of America.
“It’s very difficult for teacher to fit this material in, given how the history curriculum has been shaped,” Harris said. “The use of slave labor here is a central part of our history and there’s a lot that we don’t understand if we don’t understand slavery.”
Not understanding slavery’s stain on this country is a subject that has led to calls for building names to be changed and statues to be brought down. Some Americans say that tearing those statues down does the very thing being protested, the erasing uncomfortable history.
But who should get to decide what gets included?
When Congress asked UCLA to update national history standards in the 90s by adding new elements of study, Lynne Cheney, the then head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a substantial part of the funding for the standards, complained that the details when it came to race and slavery were “gloomy” and ultimately called for unsent copies of the material to be destroyed.
“Lynne Cheney wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that said it was too depressing, that the standards didn’t focus enough on Robert E. Lee, the confederate general, they focused on Harriet Tubman too much and too much on the KKK and racism,” Harris said. “Now this is despite the fact that many teachers felt the changes were a great update and necessary.”
Daniel Haiphong is one of the authors of the book “American Exceptionalism and American Innocence.”
“We learn that George Washington is a hero who helped found this nation, but we don’t learn that he owned over 300 slaves,” he said. “American exceptionalism in our education system is really about how certain narratives of progress and narratives of democracy and narratives of how the United States really built a country that is better than all others…ultimately trumps any understanding of how the policies, the practices and the way that power is distributed in the United States. And the way it is attempted abroad has caused a lot of harm. And if we don’t have both of those things being taught to us together than we ultimately only get one side of the story.”
“And that’s something that history does, it gives you an opportunity to say these are the things we should keep, these are the things we should never repeat,” Rami said.
Change is coming.
Last year Illinois House Bill 246 passed guaranteeing that, “The teaching of history shall include a study of the role and contributions of African Americans and other ethnic groups including but not restricted to… Hispanics, Asian Americans, etc.” and “In public schools … the teaching of history shall include a study of the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the history of this country and this State.“
It takes effect July 1.
WGN News tried to speak with the Chicago Public Schools and the Illinois State Board of Education, they both declined our request for interviews.