What We Leave out: The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

There are major issues with the way we teach African American history in NY state elementary and middle schools.

  1. We don’t really teach it.
  2. Slavery- It was and is really, really important. More than just a lamentable moment from our past, it should be central to any understanding of America past and present.
  3. The Civil rights movement- it happened! It’s still happening! But for some reason we don’t teach about it.

To start with, you cannot teach about any moment in early America without an in-depth, fair look at slavery. This country was built on slavery, from New York down to the deep south and the Caribbean. Colonialism grew up on the backs of enslaved Africans, and New York City became the powerful economic center it is because of wealth garnered from the slave trade and slave produced commodities in the south. African American history should be central to any narratives about colonialism, industrialization, westward expansion or New York’s history. While slavery is featured in the 4th and 7th grade scope and sequence for social studies, it is again just a few bullet points amidst the traditional narrative of powerful white men making decisions. ( About 8 teaching points all together out of over 200 in all of elementary school)

Lest anyone protest that slavery is too scary or horrific to really teach to 10 or 11 year olds, I will point out the the 4th and 5th grade curriculum is entirely centered on wars. Even if that were not the case, I firmly believe that to teach about any moment in American history without teaching about injustice, violence, exploitation and resistance is to promote a lie with far reaching social and political consequences. Conversely, teaching  about inequality, oppression and resistance is empowering at any age.

However, every year on Martin Luther King day, I remember that in our k-8 social studies curriculum, there is nothing- that’s right, nothing – about the civil rights movement.

Moreover, in all of the k-5 curriculum- so that is all of elementary school – these are the sole teaching points drawn from African American History after the Civil War.

  • Migration of freed slaves following the Civil War
  • Reasons African Americans moved into northern cities and The Great Migration
  • The artists, writers, and musicians associated with the Harlem Renaissance
  • NAACP (in a laundry list of non-governmental organizations in the 5th grade study of American government)

That’s it. There are dozens of teaching points about the colonial period, about the “age of exploration” (age of exploitation anyone?), about industrialization and about democracy and freedom, but of course only as they relate to the American Revolution and the founding (all white, male, mostly slave owning) fathers. There is nothing about what followed the Civil War and nothing about Civil Rights or racial identities and oppression today.

Our social studies curriculum needs whole units devoted to African American history after the civil war. Black people did not disappear with the emancipation proclamation and neither did oppression. We should be starting with reconstruction and Jim Crow, travel through the roots of civil rights  at the turn of the century, into a full exploration of the Harlem Renaissance and finally into the post-war period. Then, when we get to Martin Luther King and the full fledged civil rights movement, we should do more than a sanitized read aloud one day out of the year. (Read this)

Instead, we should do meaningful service projects in our communities. We should learn about movements toward institutional desegregation, including Brown vs. the Board of Ed and the white flight and resegregation it precipitated. We should compare leaders of the civil rights movement and their philosophies (we should be teaching kids about Malcolm X too), and learn about them in context and in depth. We should learn about women in the civil rights movement beyond Rosa Parks. We should explore the legacy of civil rights today and make sure students come away with a sense that the civil rights movement is unfinished and unceasing.  We should deliberately and explicitly foster conversations about civil rights issues of the day, making connections between past and present, not reinforce the apocryphal narratives of consensus that still dominate the way we teach history in schools. We could even make connections to current education policy, “the civil rights issue of our time” – ironically one of the phrases reformers use to push standardization, charters and punitive accountability measures which disproportionately harm black students.

I strongly believe that African American history should be central to any social studies curriculum no matter where you live, but even more so in New York where our school going population is almost 30 % black, and African American communities have played an outsized role in shaping New York City’s history and culture. Instead, tragically, we pretend that slavery didn’t matter, that our schools are not still segregated and that Civil Rights is a thing from long ago. By not teaching about Civil Rights, we confirm the insidious perception that the emancipation proclamation and the march on Washington ended racial oppression in this country. It did not.

This gaping hole in our social studies curriculum is an injustice to all of our students. There are many other projects and topics I wish we could teach more of. But this issue demands attention in a time of renewed activism and renewed racism from presidential candidates to the Supreme Court, from the criminal justice system to the federal education department. Civil rights has the potential to inspire and empower, to affirm and to provoke questions about the status quo with the end goal of fuller participation in our democracy. That should be the goal of our social studies curriculum- not transmitting a meaningless litany of facts, nor confirming dominant narratives that perpetuate ignorance and racism. No one will grow up and be convinced that black lives really matter if they never learn about black lives, no matter their race.

We need to teach African American history thoughtfully and purposefully. That’s not a token reference here and there.  African American history should not be something we engage with once a year for a day or a month. It is inextricably part of every moment of American history, and should be substantially present in our curricula all year long, from early in elementary school all the way through high school.  There should be whole units devoted to the African American experience. Just one would be a good start.

It is time to rethink social studies in this state so that it reflects the complexity of our history, the imperfections of the present, and the possibilities for our future.

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