The US still does a wretched job of teaching Black history. An expert in African American history education explains how to fix it.

In American schools where Black history is taught, students often learn about historical figures including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and Harriet Tubman. But studies have shown that Black history education is often inadequate, superficial, and misinterpreted.
In American schools where Black history is taught, students often learn about historical figures including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and Harriet Tubman. But studies have shown that Black history education is often inadequate, superficial, and misinterpreted.

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  • The US doesn’t have federal requirements for teaching Black history in school curriculums, and only a handful of states have mandated it.

  • LaGarrett King, an African American History education expert and director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri, told Insider about a few different ways educators can work to fix that.

  • Existing curriculums, King said, lack Black perspectives and sanitize versions of Black history.

  • In order to help solve the problem, teachers could attend professional development trainings, work to promote Black perspectives, and develop curriculums that explore multiple themes within Black history, King advised. 

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As protests against racism and police brutality sweep the nation, US schools are still behind in teaching Black history to students.

To date, there are no federal requirements for teaching Black history in the US, and only a handful of states have mandated curriculums to ensure that teachers discuss any Black history subjects.

Even then, a lack of oversight makes it difficult to determine if teachers are truly following curriculum guidelines.

A 2015 study conducted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Oberg Research found that, on average, only 8% or 9% of history class time is devoted to Black history, and some states neglect the subject altogether.

In states where Black history is discussed, students often learn about seminal figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks, but frequently receive failing grades when tested on the Civil Rights movement.

History textbooks also vary drastically from state to state, with some offering up sanitized versions of Black history than others. In some cases, textbooks refer to slaves as merely “workers,” while others fail to address Civil Rights, white supremacy, and oppression altogether.

This isn’t a new problem. Carter G. Woodson, known as “the father of Black history,” created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to promote the study of Black history way back in 1915. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

LaGarrett King, an African American History education professor at the University of Missouri, has researched the issue extensively. He’s developed the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education to promote Black history research, the education of teachers, and networks to help solve the problem.

Here’s what King sees is wrong with African American history education in the US, and how he thinks we can fix it. 

This isn’t a new problem

Carter Goodwin Woodson (1875-1950), African-American historian is shown in a head and shoulders portrait.
Carter Goodwin Woodson (1875-1950), African-American historian is shown in a head and shoulders portrait.

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The most recent wave of activism within the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to light issues of police brutality, systemic racism, and a lack of Black history education. But none of these are new concepts, and Black Americans have been fighting for change for hundreds of years.

“Historically, whenever there has been some form of social upheaval, civil rights, or civil disobedience as it pertains to Black people, there has always been a call for more Black history,” King told Insider. “For some strange reason, we still cannot get it done.”

Woodson’s development and promotion of Negro History week — conceived and announced in 1925, and which we now know as Black history month — came in reaction to a mass lynching movement of Black Americans throughout the late 19th to early 20th centuries, King explained.

“He basically said ‘there would be no lynching if lynching didn’t start in the classroom,'” King said.

During the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, an explosion of Black history interest led to the development of Black history courses around the country. During that time, California become one of the first states to implement Black history education into law.

Civil rights demonstration addressing education rights outside GOP convention hall, 1960's.
Civil rights demonstration addressing education rights outside GOP convention hall, 1960’s.

The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Following that decision, seven other states “passed laws requiring or recommending that the contributions and achievements of minority groups be included in school curricula,” according to a special report analyzing the status of Black history in US schools and society that King wrote in 2017.

But today, only 12 states formally recognize the importance of teaching Black history in state law.

In his 2017 report, King found that only seven of those states have Black history oversight committees. Without an oversight committee, there isn’t much accountability for teachers actually addressing the subject in the classroom, he said.

In a CBS News analysis, reporters found that seven states don’t even mention slavery directly in their state standards, while eight states do not mention the Civil Rights movement at all. Furthermore, the study found that only two states specifically address white supremacy, and 16 states list “states’ rights” as a cause of the Civil War.

All of these issues culminate in a lack of a thoughtful, holistic, and effective understanding of Black history throughout the country. And, according to King, much of that begins at the teacher level.

Teachers often lack the content knowledge to effectively teach Black history

Rain could not stop hundreds in front of NYC Department of Education Building in Lower Manhattan of New York City demanding to bring Black History to classrooms during Black History Month on February 6, 2020.
Rain could not stop hundreds in front of NYC Department of Education Building in Lower Manhattan of New York City demanding to bring Black History to classrooms during Black History Month on February 6, 2020.

Ryan Rahman/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Part of the direction of the Carter Center is to provide education for teachers who may not be equipped with the content knowledge needed to effectively teach Black history, King said.

“Teachers overwhelmingly are the most important people in teaching Black history, because the curriculum can say anything, but the teachers are the curriculum gatekeepers,” King said. “They’re the ones that figure out the connections throughout history, and they’re the ones that create activities and instructional aspects for students to attend to.”

According to a 2015 study conducted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Oberg Research, a majority of teachers “considered Black history as influential in understanding the complexity of US history,” yet the level of class time dedication was far too low. On average, the study found that only one or two history lessons are devoted to the subject, if at all. 

King said teachers — a majority of whom are white — often lack the knowledge necessary to teach Black history properly.

“While a lot of them would like to teach more Black history — and I do believe that the majority of teachers want to be inclusive — the problem is that a lot of them do not have the content knowledge to teach Black history in a way that is really effective,” he said

Part of that is due to a lack of mandated Black and ethnic studies courses in teacher education, King said. Often, curriculums present a “Eurocentric” view of history in which ethnic and Black perspectives are left behind.

Part of the mission at the Carter Center is to provide workshops on Black history education for teachers around the world. Last year, King led a seminar for 300 teachers on the topic of slavery. And this year, the seminar will focus on examining Black history from a female perspective.

King also addressed the importance of white teachers acknowledging identity and privilege within the classroom, and viewing students as citizens who will one day hold their own positions of power.

“Talk about notions of white identity and privilege within those spaces, and help them understand that this is not something that is supposed to just give you grief or guilt,” he said. “It’s something to really understand humanity and how our society works, and to create a better society.”

In order to teach Black history, instructors must work to promote Black perspectives

Demonstrators arrive at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial during a Juneteenth march in Washington, DC on June 19, 2020.
Demonstrators arrive at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial during a Juneteenth march in Washington, DC on June 19, 2020.

OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Another essential part in improving the education system is to understand what Black history really is, explained King.

“A lot of people don’t understand what Black history is, or they don’t have a theoretical model of what Black history is,” he said. “Many people would just say Black history is just history with Black people. Sometimes I like to call that ‘white history in blackface.”‘

American classrooms also tend to introduce Black people for the first time through slavery, omitting thousands of years of African history, and contextualizing Black American origins with oppression and violence, which can have a dehumanizing effect, King said.

Black and white people have not experienced history in the same way. To simply discuss Black history in the context of white history can provide a dangerous narrative, King said. Just look at Independence Day.

“July 4, 1776, means nothing to Black people historically,” he said. “The majority of Black people were still enslaved, so when we say Independence Day is July 4th, 1776, and we teach that in our curriculum, what are we saying about Black people and other non-white people that were not necessarily free during that particular time?”

Rather than recognizing the Fourth of July as Independence Day, many Black communities have long celebrated Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the ending of slavery, as their day of freedom.

The Monroe School historic site of Brown v Board of Education, what is considered the start of the Civil rights movement in the United States.
The Monroe School historic site of Brown v Board of Education, what is considered the start of the Civil rights movement in the United States.

Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Juneteenth gained more significant attention this year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, but the holiday has historically been overlooked in American classrooms.

Similarly, King discussed the idea of implementing Black perspectives into the classroom through the teaching of the Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.

While most American students understand the case be a seminal decision in the advancement of civil rights, King noted the decision had some negative repercussions on Black schools and teachers that have been seldom discussed.

“What happened was, white people defined inclusion and integration as Black people integrating into white schools. They didn’t integrate into Black schools, so therefore Black teachers and administrators lost their jobs,” he said.

It’s a microcosm about how even the Civil Rights movement has been taught within the framework of the country’s white majority, and not always how it’s affected the Black minority. Learning only the good things about Brown v. Board of Education feeds the narrative that Black schools were underdeveloped and Black students could only receive a good education by attending white schools, King said.

There is no perfect way to teach Black history, but educators need to approach it with an open mind

A demonstrator makes a sign reading 'Invest In The Students Period' as Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles supporters protest.
A demonstrator makes a sign reading ‘Invest In The Students Period’ as Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles supporters protest.

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Black history is a massive subject, and not all educators agree on exactly how it should be taught. Before teachers begin to form lesson plans, King suggests educators first recognize they need to learn what Black history is, and then work to implement Black perspectives into the wider teaching of American history.

King explained that its important to balance the difficult reality of white supremacy, slavery, and systemic oppression with Black agency and the way that Black Americans have continuously fought for their rights and persevered.

Similarly, King said learning about Black joy and love, and the ability for Black communities to stand together is an important way to focus on humanity within Black history.

“Black joy just raises the human side of Black people. Because sometimes in our curriculum we always focus on suffering, and we don’t focus on Black people being human,” he said.

A delegation demonstrates over the policing of Black students before the Peel District School Board in Mississauga, Ontario, on March 10, 2020.
A delegation demonstrates over the policing of Black students before the Peel District School Board in Mississauga, Ontario, on March 10, 2020.

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

One way to ensure Black history is being implemented into schools in a thoughtful manner is through discussions between administrators, community educators, parents, and university personnel, King suggested.

“All of these different people need to come together and design a plan,” he said. “I believe those are the things that we need to do initially, to get us there. And then after that, we need to help educate our teachers through professional development.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has increased interest in Black history, but sustained momentum is key

In many ways, widespread Black Lives Matter protests and the recent increase in social media exposure has created an environment where people “no longer have an excuse” to not educate themselves on Black history, King said.

“The beautiful thing about social media is that it has connected us with people all over the world. It gives people the opportunity to learn things that they may not have learned,” he said.

“The great majority of people stop learning history in high school, and having a social media presence for people to share Black history websites and teaching Black history through threads on Twitter and sharing through Facebook and Instagram are very positive ways to help people understand history, and begin the knowledge process.”

show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis.
show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis.

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

But that being said, the US has still a long way to go to implement Black history into schools. Though King expressed optimism an uptick in conversations and activism, he said he’s not “holding his breath.”

“I’m hopeful, but I’m trying to be as reserved as possible to see how everything is going,” he said. “Will school districts provide the money for special development? Will they take time to really develop a good Black history curriculum? Will they provide accountability for those teachers who are teaching particular classes?”

A step in the right direction, however, would be an increase in professional development and engagement with teachers. If more educators become knowledgeable on the subject of Black history, the school system could start to change.

“Professional development can’t just be one day and then we’re through. It has to be constant,” King said. “Black history is about understanding Black history from Black perspectives, and people need to continuously educate themselves and attend professional development to learn and get better at understanding Black history as humanistic and nuanced.”

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