U.S. Black Youth Must Know the Past to Understand the Present
I believe it’s only ignorance that causes African Americans to feel shame about slavery. The more I learn about the so-called “peculiar institution,” the more I find my self in awe of the spiritual and emotional fortitude of our ancestors. I believe that the greatest void in African American education is the absence of a curriculum to teach young people about the journey of our forbears. But this is not something that public schools can or should do. While I do believe that there are more good public schools than there are bad ones, I believe that this task is too precious to entrust to such an enormous bureaucracy. This task is about identity formation. It is about using knowledge–the transmission of our history–to empower our young people to break free of the narrow definitions of Blackness that have limited the ways that we enter the world. We, as African Americans, must develop, implement, and control this aspect of our children’s education.
Just as my Chinese American friends had Chinese school and my Jewish friends had Hebrew school, African American kids need African American Heritage programs that they would attend after school during elementary and junior high. These programs would be taught by experienced and highly educated Black scholars, and administered by those who had experience in that area.
None of this is to say that African American history has no place in public school (and private school) curricula. On the contrary, I believe that U.S. Black history should be integral to any social studies/social sciences curriculum at any school in this country. The program that I am imagining, however, would be tailored to the African American students who would attend. The curriculum would present U.S. Black history in such a way as to encourage students to take ownership of the legacy of their ancestors, as a basis for understanding the heroic struggles and sacrifices that preceded them.
Much would be at stake in the effective administration of such programs, as a proper education about our history and our ancestors would have the capacity of instilling in Black youth a sense of place and identity. My hope would be that such an education would create in young people a sense of responsibility to their community and to the legacy established by their forbears. I would also hope that a sense of identity based in our shared history as the descendants of U.S. Black slaves and freedom fighters would diminish the role of particular ways of speaking, dressing, particular musical trends and tastes, and other ephemeral concerns as the basis for African American identity.
Freed up from the constant pressure of proving their realness, African Americans entering high school would be able to be open about their desire for academic success, without the fear of their Blackness being challenged. The relationship of Black students to education would be transformed, and so too would be the fortunes of our Black community.
Posted by Ajuan Mance