There is no evidence that learning about Black history will harm white students or make them think negatively about themselves or other white people, historians Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha Blain said during a panel at the 100th Anniversary Conference of the National Council for the Social Studies.
“What it does do is it allows that white child to not think lesser of Black people,” said Kendi, who with Blain edited Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, an anthology with contributions from 90 writers.
The two historians served as the panel members for a conference session to discuss the book along with other topics raised by teachers and posed by moderator LaGarrett King, an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Stand strong in the face of backlash
Asked to address efforts in states across the US to restrict or ban teachers from discussing racism, white supremacy and other related topics in the classroom, the historians urged fellow educators to remain steadfast in their commitment to antiracist instruction.
Backlash should be expected because it comes with progress, Blain said, explaining that backlash in the form of violence followed the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Brown v. Board of Education decision that integrated schools.
“Backlash is a really good indication that you are stepping on the right toes,” said Blain, a writer and associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.
Kendi, founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, a historian and the author of books including How To Be an Antiracist and, due for release in June, How To Raise an Antiracist, said some leaders are using their power to “terrorize and bully and even punish teachers,” something experienced in the Jim Crow south by Black teachers who were given racist textbooks and curricula with which to teach Black students.
Borrow strategy from history
In creative ways, those educators were able to “teach the truth while keeping their jobs,” Kendi said.
Blain suggested that teachers read In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America by Kabria Baumgartner, a book about how Black women of that time taught in ways that were supportive of Black students.
“You have to be strategic, and history maps that out for us,” Blain said.
All history is important
Resistance came up in several ways during the session — teachers resisting efforts to limit what they are allowed to talk about in class, educators resisting the antiracist efforts of their peers, as well as students who resist learning about Black history.
Kendi explained how he would address the latter situation: by asking questions and explaining that such lessons are key to students understanding themselves, the country and the world.
“You can’t really even begin to contemplate your future if you don’t understand history,” he said. “You can’t really understand American history if you don’t understand Black history.”
In fact, learning about Black history had lifelong impacts for both educators, who say they fell in love with the subject in college. Blain described being “transformed” by a class on global Black social movements. Kendi remembered a professor who approached his classes and his subject with seriousness and respect, something that Kendi said he adopted and has maintained in his own work.
Use bite-sized lessons, primary documents
Educators looking for lesson ideas using Four Hundred Souls should remember that a whole book can be intimidating for students, said Blain, adding that they may end up rushing through or skimming and miss important information. She suggested focusing on sections of the book, individual essays or other contributions, which can be paired with primary documents about the same topic.
Both historians noted that the book demonstrates the diversity of thought and “of Blackness” through the inclusion of writers representing varied backgrounds, ages and genders as well as vocations, including other historians, journalists, clergy, poets and others.
Trigie Ealey is an education editor at SmartBrief.
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