History Is Shaped By Who Tells The Story
In the past year there have been constant reports of books banned and curricula made illegal around the United States. This is part of the white supremacist backlash that often follows any national progress made toward racial justice. Reconstruction after the Civil War and the violent response to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s give context for our current moment. This is why it feels fitting to revisit a blog entry from last year about why Black History Month is still imperative.
As we begin Black History Month, let’s spend some time reflecting on how Black History Month came to be, why it’s still needed, and how the work continues. Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), who was a historian, author, and publisher, is often referred to as the “Father of Black History.” Woodson was driven by the idea that Black Americans should know and celebrate their history, and that all Americans should understand Black history. This motivated Woodson to create Negro History Week in 1926, which would later become Black History Month. Woodson’s work in the early 1900s touched upon many of the issues that continue in schools today. His work highlighted the U.S. school system’s prioritization of indoctrination into White culture. Woodson hoped that integrating Black history into an authentic curriculum throughout the school year would eventually render a week or month of Black history unnecessary. However, it’s clear that the U.S. public school curriculum continues to center the European or White experience and a whitewashed version of history is the norm in many classrooms, even during Black History Month.
There are many people who continue the work of Dr. Woodson by connecting the past to the present through the perspective of Black Americans. Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author who has spent much of her career researching and reporting the legacy of slavery and segregation in the United States, often with a focus on the repercussions in public schools. Her work brings attention to the current state of segregation and inequity in our schools, as well as what is lacking in the U.S. history curriculum. Hannah-Jones is the creator of The 1619 Project, which began as a special issue of the New York Times Magazine in August 2019. August of 2019 was the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to the shores of one of the British colonies that would become the United States. Contrasting the relative obscurity of this date for most Americans with the more commonly known dates of the 1776 Declaration of Independence from Britain or the 1620 landing of the Mayflower illustrates the purpose of the project. This lack of awareness of the ship’s landing and what it set in motion affects every aspect of American life 400 years later. The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative that includes a podcast, curricular resources, and newly released books for both adults and children.
It is imperative to seek perspectives that are often excluded from United States classrooms. Engaging with resources that highlight the perspective of Black folks provides us with a more accurate telling of U.S. history. For more about Dr. Woodson, his book The Mis-education Of The Negro is considered to be his seminal work. Written in 1933, many of the issues Woodson addresses are relevant to a discussion of education in the United States today. For a local perspective, we encourage you to watch SREA’s Impact of History Untold panel discussion from February 2021.
For more context on the moment we find ourselves in, have a listen to this conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones.