Teaching ‘our’ history 24-7-365
George M. Johnson, theGrio | 3/17/2017, 12:41 p.m.
It was my first time visiting the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, and the nameplate read “Araminta Ross.” I stood in disbelief as if someone was going to pull my Black Card, because while I knew the story and the face, I had no idea that Harriet Tubman’s real name was Araminta Ross.
It was then I realized that my U.S. education was questionable at best, as I knew my own ancestors only by nicknames and pseudonyms.
The kindergarten through 12th grade education system, like most America systems, is an oppressive structure that serves as the catalyst to the erasure of black history, which ultimately is American history. Unfortunately, black history is often treated and disseminated as a small footnote in America’s comprehensive history, and even then, said black history comes with major gaps between the start of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and now.
The use of major event markers in our history tend to focus black history around three very pivotal time periods in the United States for African Americans: slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of Barack Obama.
Our story is often characterized as one of “progress,” yet the fact that we were fully civilized in Africa prior to the invasion of Europeans often gets lost. The colonization of black people was and is a part of the conditioning process that causes us to understand our history through a white lens. This whitewashing of our history has been a hotbed for white supremacy, and black Americans have subsequently, and unknowingly, assimilated into it.
That assimilation was the reason that I fought to play the lead role as Abraham Lincoln in a Black History Month school play called “This Land is Your Land” in the third grade. As black children, we are taught white history by default and it’s often in the context of the “savior complex.”
The white forefathers were depicted as catalysts for change, who stood up against the oppressive powers of Britain, yet our own Constitution once considered blacks three-fifths a person and only gained the right to vote through an amendment to the original supreme law of the land.
Slavery itself is even watered down in history books, often taught as if it were simply a mistake or decision that went too far. This rather than the truth, which is that the system of slavery was the foundation of our economy, and a top commodity for which many of our current financial institutions such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo, gained their initial capital.
President Lincoln is then sold as the American Hero who saved black folk with his “Emancipation Proclamation,” reinforcing the notion that black freedom can only come at the hands of a white man with a good heart.
I remember Black History Month in elementary school being as celebratory as Halloween. We were allowed to dress like our favorite ancestors and feel empowered, even if only for a limited time. Much of my history was taught to me by white teachers, using white-centered textbooks, whitesplaining our history in effort to soften the blow of what happened to our people versus what is told. This pipeline of erasure continued throughout middle school and high school. By the time I reached high school, learning history became a choice that almost never included black history.