If you asked the average student to name a few prominent Black figures in American History, names such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Park will be evoked. These figures did in fact have an impact in the making of America, but they aren’t the only figures who did. In fact, they were a couple of the more moderate Black figures. Knowing enough figures to barely cover the number of fingers on one’s hand isn’t embracing the quintessential impacts these people made on this country.
It’s ignoring the complexity of Black figures.
American History does a great job of erasing, diluting, and ignoring many of the achievements of people of color, in the efforts to cushion the blow of America’s atrocities. A section in my Economics book reads that unemployment rates were as high as 1 in every 4, during the Great Depression. When contextually speaking, Black-Americans endured a staggering 1 in every 2 statistic. Squeezed out of their jobs by the downpour of unemployment, Black-Americans were the last to be slotted for jobs.
This erasure buries the wounds of the past, not reconciles them. With the issue of race finally being spotlighted on a national scale since the 1960s, this moment could not be more significant to talk about race.
Last month, Dr. George J. McKenna III, the board member who sponsored the resolution to encourage Black History lessons in the classroom, published a call to action on the Los Angeles Unified School District website. “Now, more than ever, it is important to honor and respect all cultures of the American tapestry,” he said. “To ignore this obligation is a disservice to our students, our communities, our country and our future.”
The skewed perspective of Black History is detrimental to educational systems: if students aren’t given the full picture of Black-Americans’ impact here in America there isn’t a sense of respect for those achievements. The passing of the 14th Amendment did more than free the slaves, but it guaranteed citizenship to the generations of immigrants who fled to the United States with the turn of the 12th Century.
The few and sparse Black figures whom are highlighted are seen as two-dimensional, solely benevolent or strictly violent–and never in the depth that curriculum focuses on their white counterparts.
Take for example, Thomas Edison: students are taught that Edison held 1,000-something patents in the United States, the most influential being the light bulb. What students aren’t taught, however, is that Edison’s original light bulb didn’t stay lit for two minutes? It was the invention of a filament for the incandescent lightbulb by the man, Lewis Latimer, who actually invented a filament that was able to extend the life of Edison’s light bulb.
One may argue that Black History is given its yearly moment of observation, but the problem with that assumption is viewing it as something other than American History. Black History isn’t some monolith that exists without some attachment to America. The efforts of O.W. Gurley–a successful businessmen who bought tracts of undeveloped land and constructed homes for sale and rent to Blacks migrating to Tulsa from the Deep South–were just as essential to the making of this country as the likes of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. If Black History was intertwined adequately within the “standard” curriculum, there wouldn’t be a feeling of lost black voices.
Black History isn’t the only history to lose its emphasis in history books. The Native American genocide, Japanese internment, and Latino influence in American are all downplayed in history books, to the extent their detailings only take up a page or less.
This could be seen as an attempt to move on from the slaughter and mistreatment of the past–whenever topics of America’s history arise, discussion of race, a sensitive topic for most, follows–but in order to do so, reconciliation must be made. But there hasn’t been, and along with all of the other achievements People of Color have had on the American soil, it won’t be the last to be forgotten.
The history of People of Color in America is worth more than a marginal brief in history textbooks across America. Let’s stop diluting slavery, genocide, and interment and look the history of this country in the face because progress cannot be made until we realize the wrongs of the past.