Making Black Lives Matter in America’s History Curriculum

History is an essential component of the American educational system. In primary and secondary school, it is the basis for understanding civics and the development of a democratic society. It is not uncommon, however, for lessons about African Americans and people of color to be distorted or incomplete. By doing so, the curriculum marginalizes Black lives. Finding ways to overcome these distortions and misrepresentations is an important element in reforming historical curriculum and presenting a more accurate presentation of Black history.

I was 13 years old when I realized I could not count on the Westernized school system’s Eurocentric curriculum and whitewashing of events to provide me with an adequate understanding of Black history. But it was during one particular moment in which I became exceedingly aware of my Black life — and how it made my story different from that of those around me. My white seventh grade teacher, while standing at the front of a room full of mostly white students, referred to Sojourner Truth as a man. The same Sojourner Truth who attended the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention, fought for women’s suffrage, and literally wrote a speech entitled “Ain’t I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth is not a lost, faceless, or mysterious historical enigma. Information about this historical figure is easily accessible. If you Google her, you’ll find black and white pictures of her sitting beside a vase of flowers, with piercing eyes that convey a thousand words about her pain, struggle, triumph, and liberation. Lack of awareness about her story is willful ignorance. That moment only fueled my desire to learn about Sojourner Truth and her contemporaries, because I would be responsible for educating myself about the nuances of Black history.

I raised my hand to correct my white teacher. “Sojourner Truth was a woman,” I said, and he jerked his head back slightly in that way that people do when they are surprised, before saying, “Oh,” Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. He didn’t defend himself or say that he’d said “he” but meant “she.” No. He really didn’t know.

Sojourner Truth does not hold the same significance for him as she does for me; Sojourner Truth is part of my story that matters.

When the historians writing history books, or the teachers at the front of the classes, can’t relate to or sympathize with the Black struggle, that matters. When my teacher failed to challenge himself and value Black history enough to learn and teach it correctly, he demonstrated that my Black life did not matter to him.

As a Black girl in a class full of white, middle class students, I grew up believing that my history began in the hull of slave ships, and with the institution of slavery. I never learned about the Mali and Songhai empires that ruled Western Africa — all of which preceded the transatlantic slave trade. My teachers never taught me that Mansa Musa, or Musa I of Mali, the richest man who has ever lived, ruled on the same shores from which my ancestors were kidnapped and smuggled across seas.

In school, we remembered the victims of the Holocaust nearly every year through literature and film, but the lives of the over 10 million men, women, and children in the Congo murdered by King Leopold (nearly double the number of Holocaust victims), remained forgotten in my American classroom. If I had not chosen to attend Fisk University, I would have never become so aware of this rich history. Because the schools I grew up attending would not teach me, I had to come to Fisk to learn about the Haitian Revolution, the most successful rebellion of enslaved people in history, and read the works of Eslanda Goode Robeson and James Baldwin.

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Fisk offer unique and diverse narratives that highlight alternative perspectives of world history and international conflict. My standard American education taught me that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X clung to theories in conflict with each other. And I believed it until I learned that each revolutionary was a work in progress, each growing, transforming, and evolving toward an increasingly aligned understanding of humanity before their lives were cut short.

My school was not alone in misrepresenting and distorting the Black past. In one Texas classroom in 2015, slaves became “workers.” This was not a typo or an innocent misunderstanding; the passage made specific reference to Africans who were kidnapped, enslaved, and forced into conditions marked by abuse, physical and sexual exploitation on American plantations for generations, and called these victims of the highest form of white supremacy workers. History was misconstrued in the same way in a Miami high school.

The revisionist history of whitewashed textbooks not only misrepresents the history of people of color but also complicates our future.

For a child exposed only to this type of historical literature, and ignorant to the detrimental implications of white supremacy, African slaves were workers — and a people with no history, no story, and no roots. An adult who grew up believing slavery was a secondary cause of the Civil War and didn’t know about the Middle Passage cannot be expected to understand the centrality of slavery to America’s history and development. Nor could they recognize the need for policies like affirmative action, or acknowledge that Black lives do matter.

Understanding Black history is central to appreciating the complexity of the Black past as well as American history. Transitioning from the public school system to a private HBCU allowed me to see clearly the deficiencies facing students and teachers across the country.

When white supremacy makes its way into classrooms in the form of a lack of Black educators or textbook writers, the consequences are magnified in the real world. Black people and people of color must play a role in the framing of history to control the narrative and influence the literature presented to future generations. Educators in the public-school systems should embrace a multicultural perspective of historical events. For Black lives to matter, we must hold the primary and secondary accountable. They must convey an honest and accurate depiction of the Black past. This is not only important for Black people, but for all of us.

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.