No Child law leaves behind black history
Hazel Trice Edney
WASHINGTON — One hundred and forty-one years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, black history scholars and education experts say that elementary and high school students across America have few or no textbooks that fully incorporate black history.
“Clearly, there’s not enough being done on a curriculum to incorporate African American topics into the day to day learning of students in schools,” said Daryl Scott, chairman of the department of history at Howard University and vice president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). “But, when we look out and say African American students are not getting enough black history, we could also say African American students are not getting enough history of any sort.”
According to Scott, the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education initiatives, has left history behind.
The act, signed into law by Bush on Jan. 8, 2002, calls for “strong standards in each state for what every child should know and learn in reading and math in grades 3-8,” a White House citation describes. “Schools will be held accountable for improving performance of all student groups, so every school will be performing at proficient levels within 12 years.”
Scott says the act could have a detrimental effect on the emphasis of history in America’s schools.
“The only history that many kids are going to get — white or black — is coming out of their community. And so, this is the larger problem,” Scott said. “Ultimately, you’re not going to understand African American history if you do not understand American history, just like we also say you can’t understand American history if you’re not understanding African American history.”
To help increase that understanding, ASALH has started a special project with Holt, Rinehart and Winston, a leading publisher of textbooks and educational materials for grades six through 12.
ASALH Executive Director Sylvia Cyrus-Albritton says the organization is working with Holt to develop a textbook that places black history into the appropriate context with American history. While she is unsure whether such a text would be the first of its kind, she does believe it is necessary.
“Particularly in these days of No Child Left Behind and [with] the lack of focus on the humanities in general, there’s a real struggle in standards to cover all the things that are required,” she said. “And African American history does not always get the attention and the amount of content that’s really required to provide the information that we think would be helpful to students.”
Meanwhile, the Black History Month edition of the Black History Bulletin — first published in 1937 as the Negro History Bulletin by Carter G. Wilson, who founded what was then called “Negro History Week” in 1926 — outlines a curriculum for middle and high school students titled “Freedom’s Song: 100 Years of African-American Struggle and Triumph,” covering 1900 to 2000.
Because standards of education differ from state to state, it has not been determined whether any particular textbook fits the bill for the inclusion of black history, said George Jackson Sr., a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which represents 1.3 million pre-school through 12th-grade teachers and personnel in cities with large African American populations like New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Baltimore.
Jackson pointed out, however, that the AFT has issued two resolutions to demonstrate its concern — one in 1968 to push for teachers trained in the instruction of black history, and the second in 2000 calling for curricula that include diversity of race and gender — and that the federation is about to launch a study on standardized tests that focus solely on math and reading.
“Is it taking away from instruction in other subject areas? Is it deemphasizing civics, social studies or geography or history or sciences and other classes like music and art? Are they suffering?” Jackson said.
Africans have been a documented part of American history since 1619, when a Dutch ship brought about 20 Africans to Jamestown, Va., who were sold to whites, beginning the slave trade. Thousands of Africans were forced to live and work under inhumane conditions for the next 246 years before the ratification of the 13th Amendment on Dec. 1, 1865, at the close of the Civil War.
Freedom for the slaves brought continued hardships and racial degradation, marked by another century of Jim Crow segregation, lynchings and a civil rights movement fraught with government-instigated violence.
The omission or inaccurate portrayal of black history or American history in textbooks or instruction can be traced to America’s shame, according to Diane Batts Morrow, associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Georgia.
“American society has not come to grips with its racist past and is therefore fairly concerned about, ‘Oh, we don’t want to shock these children with this,’” said Morrow.
Whatever the excuse, neglecting that past can be detrimental for the sociological development of all races, Morrow said, citing the example of white students developing a false sense of superiority from seeing how whites have oppressed Africans and Native Americans.
“The white privileged group assumes this is their natural right,” she says. “And when you assume that if you’re white, you have certain privileges and everyone of color is inferior, that of course is a skewed perspective and it doesn’t allow you to treat people with respect based on their individual personalities or to understand why there’s not yet a level playing field.”
For African American students, not being taught inclusive history can compound low self-esteem.
“One of the issues is that [black students] don’t know that in spite of slavery and in spite of discrimination, black people have achieved and have accomplished quite a bit, and that should be a source of pride — but not if it’s avoided or eliminated from your textbook,” she said. “Teaching it brings an understanding of history and teaches people not to ignore what has happened in the past and its affect on modern-day society.”
Upon founding Negro History Week, Woodson expressed hope that someday America would not have to commemorate black history separately from American history. That day has not yet arrived, according to Morrow.
Without black history in the classroom, she concluded, “It’s a very skewed and imbalanced view.”
(National Newspaper Publishers Association)