Examining the erasure of Black history in education
History has the potential to be an incredibly empowering tool in education, especially for Black students, however, we are failing.
February 14, 2021
It was 2015 at Waterloo West High School, and I was waiting to hear a Martin Luther King Jr. quote sound through the intercom in commemoration of Black History Month.
All of our desks lined up back-to-back, everyone, staring blankly ahead listening for the vice principal’s monotone voice to lead us into the rest of the day. The white student in front of me laughed in response and said to his friend, “Where’s our month?”
As a Black student, having grown up surrounded by white students and teachers, this type of commentary was common — whether it was people trying to diminish my identity because I didn’t fit the stereotypes they associated with being Black, microaggressions, or blatant statements including the one above.
Many students like him were done the disservice of not knowing real U.S. history, only the censored, more palatable versions that continue to put white people in more favorable positions.
These versions of history also do a disservice to students of color, including myself and New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who went to the same public schools as I did. Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her 1619 Project — a project that focuses on placing Black history and the contributions of Black people at the center of U.S. history through a collection of personal essays, podcasts, and in-depth reporting.
She grew up in Waterloo and was bused from the east to west side of town in order to get a better education. Hannah-Jones talks about her personal experiences with Blackness in the 1619 Project, and the history that is often untold that ties Black identities to this country.
While Hannah-Jones attended Waterloo West High School, she took a Black studies course which sparked her interest in learning about Black history.
“I first heard about the date 1619 as a high school student from my one-semester elective Black history course,” she told me when I called her in November of last year. “I became obsessed with that history and kept asking my teacher to give me more books to self-study. That date was like a lightning bolt for me.”
Waterloo has the most Black people per capita in the state of Iowa, with 16 percent of the overall population being Black. Waterloo also happens to be incredibly segregated between the east and west sides of town. In 2019, USA Today positioned Waterloo as the third-worst place for racial disparities between Black and white populations when looking at homeownership rate, income, and unemployment.
Infographic by Mary Hartel/The Daily Iowan
Hannah-Jones has focused a lot of her work on school segregation. She is now working on creating a 1619 Freedom School in Waterloo, Iowa, with the goal of providing educational opportunities rooted in Black history.
“We experienced both covert and overt discrimination at the school,” Hannah-Jones said. “When I was there, I helped lead walkouts where we demanded they hire more Black teachers, we were demanding that Black studies be a mandatory course instead of a one-semester elective course, there were fights along racial lines as well that caused us to lead walkouts. There were always a lot of tensions.”
When I was at Waterloo West high three years ago, there was no option to take a Black studies elective course. I was the only Black student in my cohort for the International Baccalaureate program. In general, I was always among only one or two other students of color in my upper-level courses.
When I attended school in the Waterloo Community School District, there were a total of 3,029 Black students enrolled in the public school system. The only districts with comparable numbers were Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.
Infographic by Mary Hartel/The Daily Iowan
Through my K-12 education, I only had one Black teacher. The lack of overall representation in the school was a constant reminder of me being seen as an exception to the norm as a Black student. It became easier for students to see me as an “Oreo,” white on the inside and Black on the outside. I felt like an imposter to my own race.
Waterloo schools have made several recent changes in hopes of creating a more equitable environment for the Black population, like the African American Experience elective course.
Chris Tims teaches the new course at Waterloo East High School. Like many Black students, when Tims was young he was robbed of a proper education involving Black history.
“It took until I was a grown man to realize I was being taught a history that was not my own and that did not acknowledge the contributions people that look like me made to the United States,” Tims said.
The African American Experience course has students read work from multiple Black creators, including Hannah-Jones and Ibram X. Kendi. As of right now, the majority of the students enrolled in the class are Black.
“It’s important to me to be able to bring everyone together to learn this material,” Tims said. “This history is so important, it’s not just for Black kids, everyone needs to learn it. It is a part of U.S. history.”
The way we view Black history as an optional segmentation of U.S. history is indicative of how society devalues Black lives.
Having an African American Experience course is a clear step in the right direction. However, it is not an entirely new idea. When Hannah-Jones attended Waterloo West High School, the Black studies course was a catalyst in her life, driving her to fill in the gaps of Black history the education system leaves open.
“After my Black studies class, I used to go into my classes and start challenging my teachers,” she said. “I would ask them ‘What about this?’ but they wouldn’t know the answers because they hadn’t read those books.”
This country has been deprived of accurate history for so long that, as a result, there are few people who are equipped with the knowledge to teach courses on Black history. I can remember in my eighth-grade history class the uncomfortable silence that followed when a student asked, “Why didn’t the slaves just run away?”
This was a valid question; the way this history is told is meant to reaffirm the false notion that the only position African Americans have held in this country is under the power of whites.
Our founding fathers are placed as catalysts in forming this great nation, overlooking their pasts as slave owners. We are generally taught about slavery, emancipation, segregation, then freedom. There were rarely ever connections made between the past and present.
“The way we are taught history in school teaches Black kids to be ashamed,” Hannah-Jones said. “We are basically taught that we let white people whip us and force us to work for them then we waited for white people to free us. That’s a very demeaning way to learn this history. Kids aren’t learning about Black resistance; we are not taught that these white men we are taught to idolize made their wealth off of slave labor camps.”
The inaccessibility to this history is all too convenient to the white supremacist narrative that sits at the core of this country. Black students are taught that their history is a subdivision of the greater history that has shaped this country, when in reality the America we know today was built off of the backs of Black enslaved people.
Former President Donald Trump’s push for patriotism with the 1776 Commission perfectly demonstrates the crippling fear America experiences in the face of its past. This order pushed for educators to emphasize a narrative of the astonishing nature of American history, rather than the reality of systemic racism.
“From Washington to Lincoln, from Jefferson to King, America has been home to some of the most incredible people who have ever lived. With the help of everyone here today, the legacy of 1776 will never be erased. Our heroes will never be forgotten. Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul,” Trump said at a White House History Conference in September.
The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, 89 years before slavery was technically abolished. Additionally, three out of the four people referenced in Trump’s quote enslaved African Americans. For what populations are these people heroes, and for whom is 1776 meant to be significant?
It is no coincidence Trump made this initiative following the 1619 Project.
The 1619 Project received an abundance of well-deserved praise but has also been the target for criticism from Trump and others on the right.
“It was quite surreal to have the President of the United States targeting your work introducing an executive order against your work, as well as creating an entire commission as a poor effort to refute the work,” Hannah-Jones said. “I certainly didn’t expect that at all, but I wasn’t surprised the right-wing would attack and criticize the project.”
Recently, upon his inauguration, President Joe Biden waived the 1776 Commission. Although this was necessary, the federal government does not control curricula. More concerningly for Hannah-Jones, several states, including Iowa, have introduced bills that would ban the 1619 Project from being taught in schools.
“For First Amendment reasons, these bills are very concerning,” Hannah-Jones said. “Clearly, I don’t want states intervening to say that this project shouldn’t be taught in schools. I am particularly concerned with heavily Republican states where they have majorities.”
The bill to ban the 1619 Project from being taught in schools was proposed by state Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City. The bill, House File 222, has now advanced through a House subcommittee and is up for consideration by the Iowa House Education Committee. Wheeler mentioned at a subcommittee hearing how he believes the 1619 Project is “leftist political propaganda.” Section one of the bill itself states, “the ‘1619 Project,’ attempts to deny or obfuscate the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded.”
“I think it is politically convenient to attack the project,” Hannah-Jones said. “It is a touchpoint for people on the right who want to put forth this narrative that American values are under attack, that white people are under attack, and that they need to somehow vindicate this country as exceptional.”
Wheeler’s initiative to stop the use of the 1619 Project is a prime example of how the exclusion of Black history is essential in perpetuating conservative ideologies that assert the identity of this country and whiteness as exceptional.
As I have grown, I have started exploring my own ignorance of the history of my ancestors, every day filling in gaps the education system left open.
Education is one of the first steps of many in breaking down systemic barriers that have displaced Black people in this country. Education gives children a toolbox to uplift their identities and spread this, often untold, history.
There are outside resources available for students and teachers to help fill in the gaps of U.S. history. The African American Museum in Cedar Rapids is a perfect example. The museum has a variety of different resources for students and teachers to help facilitate Black history education.
Sean Donaldson is the museum educator at the African American Museum. He works with local schools and students to help bridge the gaps in Black history education.
“We have put together packets of information that detail what we can offer and how it aligns to standards, then we ship those out to different school districts,” he said. “We work closely with the Iowa social studies standards.”
The social studies standards in Iowa are relatively vague. For high schoolers, some Social Studies Standards related to U.S. history include evaluating how regional, racial, ethnic, and gender perspectives influenced U.S. history. Some sample documents included in the standards for critiquing are reconstruction amendments, the Emancipation Proclamation, Eisenhower’s farewell speech, and the Voting Act of 1965.
The way these standards are framed continues to put white males at the forefront of progress in America. There should be more emphasis on the minority populations who have driven these policy changes. Additionally, racial, ethnic, and gender perspectives have not only influenced American history and culture but are central to the identity of this country.
Public schools are already misshaping history to fit the narrative that was pushed by the 1776 Commission.
As long as we teach our students the history that lies within works such as the 1619 Project, the book Stamped by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, and the African American Museum as an optional elective history, we continue to perpetuate the belittlement of Black lives and vindicate white supremacy as the core identity of this nation.
I spent most of my own childhood oblivious to the color of my skin, feeling like an imposter whenever I did notice it. I was like a flake of pepper in a vast sea of salt. However, I have been privileged enough to have constantly had resources at my disposal to push me in academics and beyond. Many Black students did not and do not have that luxury.
Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.