In our education system, students are not given an appropriate education in history. When they learn American history, much of the semester or year is spent learning about wars, presidents, and economic failure. They get a few days at the beginning of the course learning about the different Native American cultures and history, and about a week (or less) focusing on the Civil Rights Movement. Then the curriculum goes right back to “American” History.
American children, especially descendants of the Diaspora, are not given adequate instruction on, not just American History, but specifically Black History. We don’t spend too much time on slavery because it is supposedly too depressing or traumatic for young children, and when we do, the focus is mostly on the impact on the economy, not necessarily the evils of the institution itself and its lasting legacy. Another example is the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights figures and their beliefs are edited and censored when taught in the classroom, presented in a way that does not threaten the current institution of society. Students are taught a) about how society as a whole benefited from the contributions of African-Americans and b) that they now have much better opportunities for success than they did before the Civil Rights Movement and the legislation that followed. What I find problematic about this is that the complexity of the educational context does not increase as the students become older and more capable of understanding history. I, for one, did not understand what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. actually stood for until the spring semester of my freshman year of college, when I took my first course in the Center for African-American Studies.
Today, some of Dr. King’s beliefs are arguably still too radical for public consumption. He actually fought on behalf of trade workers’ unions for wage increases; in fact, the last speech he gave before his death was at a rally supporting sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King believed strongly in economic equality, continuing to lead nonviolent demonstrations for the economic and educational improvement of life for African-Americans. However, the goals of economic equality and an equal opportunity for children to obtain a quality education are apparently still too lofty for our lawmakers to reach, because this fight still continues. We do not even learn about this aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy because it is a direct contrast with the current capitalist economic structure of our society.
America needs Black History Month because it is the only way to ensure that children, regardless of their race, learn about the contributions that African-Americans have made to American History. These contributions are so much more than what is currently taught in our education system. Growing up, we become accustomed to the yearly tradition of celebrating the achievements of African-Americans for one month of the year. Madame C.J. Walker, who became the first self-made black millionaire with Madame Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower (not the pressing comb as many people believe), Garrett Morgan, who is most notable for his invention of the traffic signal and gas mask—and the first hair relaxer—and George Washington Carver, who created a plethora of uses for peanut products, respectively. We also learn about the power players of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and usually Malcolm X.
Malcolm X is, of course, another controversial figure. As recently as this year, students in a Flushing, New York elementary school were reprimanded for choosing to do a presentation on Malcolm X for Black History Month. Their teacher supported this ban with the claim that the African-American revolutionary was “bad” and “violent.” However, Malcolm X was not actually violent; he supported the complete separation of the black and white communities and only condoned violence in the case of self-defense within the context of racially motivated hate crimes. Whereas Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is currently hailed for his non-violent practices and dream for equality, Malcolm X is condemned for his “eye-for-an-eye” approach to justice and compelling rhetoric.
Fortunately, there are youths today who still have the potential to change the society in which we live. During Black History Month, they learn about important figures in African-American history and their contributions to the race, regardless of how censored the information may have become. Scholars say that it is our responsibility to compensate for the “watered-down” black history that is being taught in schools; however, many children do not have access to this knowledge outside of the classroom, which is why there should be a collective striving to change the way our children learn their history. Not only should they be exposed to a wide variety of positive role models within their race, but it is also imperative that they are taught their history without sugarcoating or censoring. Black History Month is a starting point. School districts are actively encouraging the integration of African-American history into their curricula, if only for a month. What students now need is an education that allows them to understand their history. With this understanding, they will be able to see that history repeats itself—that the old social practices and laws have merely been recycled to make prejudice and discrimination less overt. However, without knowledge of the construction of American society and its effect on African-Americans, they will be unable to gain that insight.