Why All of Us Need to Learn African American History

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Teaching African American history is hard. It’s a history of oppression, fear, violence, rape, poverty, inequity, incarceration, and disenfranchisement. After spending a day reading about and lecturing on the barbaric physical abuse and psychological torture employed by enslavers to manipulate the lives and labor of bondpeople, all I want to do is to binge a sitcom on my laptop in bed.

However, teaching African American history is also beautiful and inspiring. It’s a history of resistance, innovation, bravery, hard work, community, creativity, resilience, and power. And that’s why I show up to work every day—to teach the good and the bad, to highlight the resilience of black people the structures in place to uphold the racial hierarchy.

Over these past four hundred years, white Americans have successfully established a system to profit socially, politically, and economically from black Americans. Black Americans have basically lived in “a nation within a nation.” Since the arrival of the first Africans sold into slavery in colonial Virginia in 1619 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended legalized segregation, black people in America were born, educated, socialized, and buried separate from white society. And U.S. cities have grown more segregated over the past 40 years, perpetuating and intensifying racial disparities in access to health care, education, and accumulation of wealth.

Race is a social construct—there is nothing genetically inherent to distinguish white from black or anything in between. While our notion of what constitutes “white” and “black” is a product of social construct, it has real life, everyday implications on thousands of levels.

Toni Morrison quote

Many think they got to where they are because they are smart, hard working, and a little lucky. They don’t take into account white privilege. To dismantle structural racism (the system of hierarchy and inequity primarily characterized by white supremacy) and to achieve racial progress, white people must acknowledge and relinquish their power, their conscious or unconscious belief that they are inherently better or harder working or more deserving of humanity.

The construction of race in America, along with the claim that the white race is superior to other groups, came about as a rationale for slavery. Also under the regime of slavery however, we see the foundation of a distinct African American culture that touches many of our lives, no matter our race or ethnicity. As Africans from throughout the continent labored and lived with fellow bondpeople, including forming families, distinct facets of African American culture came about. And these products of slave culture, including food, music, and fashion, became integrated into mainstream American culture. African American culture is the reason Luther College offers a Jazz Studies program. Who has danced to or stared in awe at Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade? And who likes fried chicken or macaroni and cheese? You have African American cooks to thank! Who has used the Black Power fist emoji?  

Consumption of black culture is a tangible way to connect to African American history in the classroom and to understand the role of black history and culture in all of our lives. For example, one of my students brought up Joyner Lucas’s music video “I’m Not Racist” in relating class discussion about the challenges of bringing race into conversations. And just last week in class, another student shared with me a spoken word piece by black poet Rudy Francisco called “Adrenaline Rush.” In his poem, Francisco articulates, “it must be so nice to feel so safe you have to invent new ways to put yourself in danger.” The student explained that taking the Introduction to African American history class helped him understand the poet was talking about white people’s wacky thrill-seeking as compared to the daily adrenaline rush he experiences as a black man in America.

Educators play an important role in shaping how students view themselves and the world. I’m teaching my students that there is no shame in being critical of our nation’s past and present. I’m teaching them that African Americans played, and continue to play, an important role in shaping the economy, politics, and culture of our shared nation. I’m teaching them, as bell hooks wrote, “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege.”


Resources to Learn More:

Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom (July/August 1989).

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “What We Mean When We Say ‘Race is a Social Construct’,” The Atlantic, May 15, 2013.

Racial Equity Tools is designed to support individuals and groups working to achieve racial equity. This site offers tools, research, tips, curricula and ideas for people who want to increase their own understanding and to help those working toward justice at every level – in systems, organizations, communities and the culture at large.

Teaching Tolerance provides free resources to educators to supplement the curriculum, to inform their practices, and to create civil and inclusive school communities where students are respected, valued and welcome participants. Our program emphasizes social justice and anti-bias. The anti-bias approach encourages children and young people to challenge prejudice and learn how to be agents of change in their own lives

Professor Kelly Sharp

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