When Republican President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, he called on Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans.”
He also acknowledged that Black Americans had shown “courage and perseverance” when our country had failed to live up to its own ideals.
Today, even Ford’s simple words would be inadmissible in many American classrooms.
As of last year, at least 35 state legislatures had introduced bills to limit the discussion of racial history in their classrooms. At least 16 had passed them.
Over 300 books by predominantly Black authors are banned throughout the country. And educators are being fined, harassed, forced to resign, or fired for teaching about race.
Little acts like hanging a “Black Lives Matter Sign” in class can be grounds for termination. In Florida, keeping classroom books that haven’t been cleared by state censors can be grounds for felony prosecution.
As a result, teachers are finding it more and more difficult to teach about Black history without fear of repercussions.
As a Black woman, I am not at all surprised by these attempts to whitewash our history. If I were a politician obsessed with suppressing civil rights, voting rights, and racial justice, I too would probably want to make sure only my version of the story gets told.
These efforts aren’t new, either.
Despite progress made since the Civil Rights Movement to update the textbooks used in U.S. schools, “most mainstream social studies textbooks remain tethered to sanitized versions of history that mislead young minds,” writes fifth-grade teacher and Rethinking Schools founder Bob Peterson.
In a discussion with Color of Change president Rashad Robinson, journalist and Howard University Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones argued that this erasure is no accident.
Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project founder, explained: “The same instinct that led powerful people to prohibit Black people from being able to read is the same instinct that’s leading powerful people to try to stop our children from learning histories that would lead them to question the unequal society that we have as well.”
It’s why politicians like Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) are going to such lengths to ban Black studies in schools. The Florida Education Department and College Board recently rejected an AP African American History high school curriculum, claiming it “lacked educational value.”
DeSantis notoriously signed the so-called “Individual Freedom Act,” also known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” which states that “teachers are not allowed to make students feel ‘guilty about past discrimination by members of their race.’”
Much of Black history in this country isn’t easy to learn, teach, or digest — there is nothing comfortable about it. But the point isn’t to make students feel “guilty.” It’s to help them learn.
To be “woke,” or to “stay woke” — a term originated by African American communities in the 1940s — is to become “woken up or sensitized to issues of justice,” as linguist Tony Thorne told The Independent.
The state of Florida apparently agrees, defining “woke” in court as simply “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society.” But the state is manipulating the term, as if it were wrong or “progressive” to believe that systemic injustices exist.
Thankfully, many people aren’t fooled. Students all over the country, including in my home state of Pennsylvania, are protesting book bans on stories of color.
Overturning those bans would benefit kids of every color. “Having a diverse curriculum will benefit students in the long haul,” argues writer Nathalie Wilson, because it “helps them to better understand the complexities in the world.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Black history is complex. It is also American history. This Black History Month, don’t ban it — teach it.