I really tried to stay away from this story of the Bronx teacher stepping on the backs of Black students during a lesson on slavery. I was determined to celebrate Black History Month by not engaging in the racist, anti-Blackness practices that I knew would show up because it always shows up, most predominantly during February.
Even though I was outraged, I wanted to stay in my celebratory cocoon for all 28 days of February.
But after being bombarded with messages and requests for comment, I finally read through the story.
So how are we supposed to teach our students about slavery?
When we look at the timeline of history, slavery is a moment in time. To be African-American might have started when enslaved Africans were brought to this country, but to be African is to be the originator of the human species. And one has to ask, why is our public school system determined to start the history of African-Americans at the shore of Jamestown?
I was a history teacher for a decade in the NYC public school system. I taught global and American history and had to teach about chattel slavery every single year. However, I started out every September by watching the film, “The Real Eve.” For me, I knew how important it was to let students know that they were not descendants of slaves, but rather the originator of man. Therefore, every September began with our genesis as a people, as the mother of the human race.
Because I learned very early on in my career that students hate history. They bemoaned how boring and unrelatable it was/is.
Translation: The way history is/has been taught for me as a student of color makes me feel inferior or invisible and therefore I avoid dealing with it at all costs.
The proper way to teach slavery is to start with Africa as the cradle of all civilization, to talk about the way Africans populated the world, built kingdoms, invented tools and technology, communed with nature, worshipped gods and goddesses, and taught Europeans everything from maintaining proper hygiene to cultivating the land to learning about the arts and sciences at Timbuktu.
Talk about how Africans were in the Americas 200 years before Columbus. Teach about the philosophers, queens, kings and warriors. Discuss the customs, the trade routes, the family, community and tribe structure.
Then when you finally get to slavery, talk about what Africans experienced during the Maafa (Middle Passage) alongside talking about the evils perpetrated by white people, how they used God as a means to create hell on Earth. Talk about their greed, the way they destroyed everything they touched. Talk about those white people who looked on with indifference.
Ask questions, such as how did it feel to be enslaved, and how does it feel to be the descendants of enslavers as a white person? Teach about the righteousness and constant occurrences of slave rebellions and revolts. Show that Black people had self-efficacy and were not idly waiting and hoping for white people to realize the error in their ways. Provide examples of Blacks building thriving towns and cities such as Rosewood and Tulsa, Seneca Village and Weeksville before white people came in and destroyed these areas.
If you’re not racist, then teach this history.
If the New York City mayor’s and chancellor’s offices are serious about digging out the root of white supremacy and anti-Black ideology in our public schools, they would mandate that all schools ensure that anti-bias training is a part of their Comprehensive Education Plan and Professional Development plan, permanently. They would allot proper funds for these trainings in perpetuity because after all it has taken us 500 years to get here. Three sessions will not undo all of that history, and individual schools cannot be responsible for decolonizing themselves. Outside help and expertise will be needed.
The mayor’s and chancellor’s offices would mandate that teacher education programs ensure that pre- service teachers receive multiple classes and experiences on anti-bias and anti-racist education, pedagogy and philosophy.
The mayor’s and chancellor’s offices would invest in the decolonizing and rewriting of our curriculum in conjunction with leading scholars, educators and the state. With a rewriting of the curriculum, we would also need to develop pedagogical practices of the future because we are still using the pedagogy of the 19th century.
The mayor’s and chancellor’s offices, along with the teacher and administrator unions, would add cultural competence, responsive and relevance to teacher ratings.
These changes would only be the beginning.
The beginning of a complete overhaul of our beliefs, practices and policies around race, gender, power and privilege in our schools.
Let me leave you with one last thing. For any educator reading this article, Black History Month is a celebration. Try to make it through the next 20-plus days without talking about slavery or civil rights, or white oppression. Carter G. Woodson, the originator of Negro History Week, created this time of celebration because he knew that Black people “were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.” So for this Black History Month 2018, let’s focus on Black girl magic, Black boy joy, Black art, Black excellence, passion, spirituality, creativity, dopeness and education. I give you permission to indulge in food, fun and festivities.
S. Khalilah Brann is the founder of Culturally Responsive Educators of the African Diaspora. It is an educational equity, diversity and inclusion consulting, coaching and curriculum development firm that offers professional development and technical assistance to schools, districts, parent associations and community-based organizations.