Revisionist Black history: why experts are challenging how American history is taught in schools

Shanon Lee
·Contributing Writer
·5 min read
Educators and activists are challenging how Black history is taught in American schools and calling for a more complex understanding of Black history. (Photo: Getty)
Educators and activists are challenging how Black history is taught in American schools and calling for a more complex understanding of Black history. (Photo: Getty)

While Black History Month is a time to celebrate Black culture, it can also call attention to the problematic framing of American history — which, experts say, excludes much of Black history.

“We go from Christopher Columbus to the Pilgrims to the first colonists and then the pre-Civil War. It gets to the point where it is so reductive, it becomes a lie,” Dr. Joy Banner, director of communications at the Whitney Plantation, a Louisiana museum that focuses on the lives of enslaved people, tells Yahoo Life. “Slavery is only used as the thing that may or may not have been the real reason behind the Civil War.”

In school, Banner says she was taught that the American Civil War was not about slavery.

“The focus of our history becomes rooted in the Civil War, but slavery was 246 years,”

This country was built on the backs of the enslaved people. If you do not learn about the journey of Black people, you will not understand American history. Dr. Joy Banner, the Whitney Plantation

says Banner. “People think slavery was a monolith, but the system was adapting and changing throughout that 246 year period.”

Banner says students need a more “complex and in-depth understanding” of how large the concept of slavery and Black history is. “Our blood, our sweat, our tears, our skills and our expertise are in the bones of this country,” she says.

The argument for reparations to Black Americans is based on the promise of “40 acres and a mule” to the formerly enslaved following the Civil War. This land redistribution plan was halted after president Abraham Lincoln’s assasination, and previously enslaved people were stripped of land ownership once Andrew Johnson took office.

Experts are revising school curriculum to challenge inaccurate narratives about Black history (Photo: Getty)
Experts are revising school curriculum to challenge inaccurate narratives about Black history (Photo: Getty)

“[While] learning about the Civil War, we don’t talk about reconstruction and we do not talk about the radical Republicans that were very progressive and committed to reconciling this country,” Banner says.

“People think slavery was about hatred. Slavery was about opportunity, and the exploitation of Black labor,” she says. “This country was built on the backs of the enslaved people. If you do not learn about the journey of Black people, you will not understand American history. ”

Some say part of the problem is the marginalization of Black historians and Black educators in America.

“Black history was not written from the perspective of Black people or Black scholars,” Steven Becton, the chief officer for diversity, equity, and inclusion for Facing History and Ourselves, tells Yahoo Life. It was written by Eurocentric scholars, so you are going to get a Eurocentric view that does not tell the whole story and includes inaccuracies.”

For example, Becton challenges the common narrative Black people were ill-prepared for their newfound freedom and uninterested in voting during the Reconstruction Era.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth. Right after the chains of slavery were broken, Black folks started their civic participation,” Becton says.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the D.C. Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, ending slavery in the District of Columbia and providing immediate freedom to the enslaved.

Following the Civil War, which resulted in both the end of the confederacy and the abolishment of American slavery, the Reconstruction Era birthed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

“We were voting in large numbers during the Reconstruction Era until domestic terrorism, including lynching, suppressed our vote,” he says. “We are still dealing with the legacy of that [violence] today.”

The Emancipation statue, depicting a slave breaking the chains of captivity as Abraham Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation. (Photo: Getty)
The Emancipation statue, depicting a slave breaking the chains of captivity as Abraham Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation. (Photo: Getty)

Becton says revising curriculums to challenge inaccurate narratives about Black history is a good place to start, and “it is not revising history, it is getting history right.”

“There is nothing more central to American history than the experience of Africans in America,” Becton says. “The contributions of African Americans should be integrated all of the time, and taught in more than just history class, because we have contributed across the disciplines.”

However, he would like to see Black history being taught in a way that addresses “the context of the struggle” instead of using common redemptive narratives.

“We need to talk about Nat Turner, the Black Panther Party and the Tulsa Race Riots,” says Becton. “Until we face these troubling moments in history, we won’t understand the legacies of present-day suffering.”

The erasure of Black women’s historical contributions also needs addressing, Becton says: “We hear about Rosa Parks, but not enough about Barbara Jordan and Ella Josephine Baker. That’s a huge injustice and it is troubling.”

1969 gathering of Black Panther members in Oakland, CA. (Photo: Getty)
1969 gathering of Black Panther members in Oakland, CA. (Photo: Getty)

Even during the era of American slavery, Banner emphasizes Black people were able to form cohesive communities and count on one another for survival.

“Think about the fathers raising biracial children that were obviously not theirs and loving them, or the kids that were sold away from their families and how our communities rallied together to care for them,” she says.

Becton views Black history as a celebration of Black love and Black joy. “We are a people that took scrap food and turned it into a delicacy, that is the celebration of Black joy. I want young people to know we are fully worthy of loving ourselves, no matter what American history books say.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

  1. Determine your state’s standards for history education.

  2. Learn about your local process for changes to school standards and add your voice to that conversation.

  3. Petition for Black history to be taught honestly, and all year.

  4. Request emphasis on the Reconstruction Era, a transformative and pivotal period in American history that is often omitted from curriculum.

  5. Pledge to Participate in the Black Lives Matter at School Initiative.

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