Black history is more than slavery and the Underground Railroad. Seventh-grade U.S. History teacher Patty Barbour wants her students to know more about American black history than about the oppression and dehumanization of a people.
“Everyone knows about slavery. Everyone knows about the Underground Railroad, and most know about Rosa Parks. But outside of that, they don’t know a lot,” said Barbour, who teaches at Francis Scott Key Middle School in Springfield.
“I actually went to school in Virginia when school was still segregated,” said Barbour, whose school system underwent mandatory racial integration during her fourth-grade year. “When we talked about African Americans, when I went to school, it was all about slaves and I kept thinking isn’t there more to us. Isn’t there something positive? It was so demeaning to me. I felt like sliding under my desk.”
Today, Barbour, a retired U.S. Army colonel who was deployed to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, looks out on a classroom of students in a school with an enrollment composition that is 22 percent white, 17 percent black, 25 percent Asian, 33 percent Hispanic, and another three percent identifying outside of these larger ethnic cohorts.
“I tell kids the classroom today doesn’t look like it did when I grew up. The classroom is more diverse,” she said, adding that the lessons should be too. “It’s not a black and white issue. We’ve got Hispanic kids who want to know how they fit in. I look at black history as being more of a shaping of history. People had a desire to better themselves. There is nothing you can encounter that you can’t overcome. That is black history.”
February is Black History Month, a designation acknowledged in 1976 by the federal government. However, the origins of the effort to draw attention to the contributions of African Americans finds its roots in 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History declared the second week in February to be Negro History Week, which coincided with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, an escaped-slave and abolitionist icon.
Like the expansion from a week to a month, Fairfax County Public Schools aims to incorporate black American contributions beyond February to the entire year.
Students begin formally learning about prominent African Americans in the second and third grade, with an introduction to iconic figures like Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, scientist George Washington Carver and baseball’s Jackie Robinson.
“The early focus is on African Americans and the prominent role they have in our culture … We want them to see, before we expose them to the history of slaves here … the history is more than slaves,” said Alice Reilly, FCPS’ coordinator for preK-12 social studies curriculum and instruction.
The history of black people in America is taught in a number of grades, including second and third grade, fourth-grade Virginia history, sixth- and seventh-grade introduction to U.S. history, eighth-grade civics, part of tenth-grade world history, where students learn about Mali, Ghana and other African nations, eleventh-grade U.S. history and in the Advanced Placement history and government classes.
While the subject is widely taught, some teachers struggle with finding a balanced way to teach black history to their younger students.
“I have, over the years, facilitated many workshops with secondary school teachers… And it is absolutely true that teachers have suggested to me that it’s difficult to teach about race,” said George Mason University Professor Wendi N. Manuel-Scott, director of African and African American Studies. “Clearly, you don’t want to introduce a kindergartner to slaves being shackled on a boat. But you do introduce them to Harriet Tubman [and similar black American icons]… The greatest challenge for our instructors is to know they have to have those difficult conversations and find age-appropriate ways to have those discussions.”
The lynching of people in the South is one example of a subject teachers shy away from, Manuel-Scott said.
Last month, a Lake Braddock Secondary School parent suggested author Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” was age inappropriate material for a high school AP English class. The parent made her request to remove the book from class readings to the School Board, which declined to ban the book, saying her son had nightmares after reading the text.
In “Beloved” Morrison depicts life of black women in the U.S. after the Civil War, with flashbacks to life on a plantation called Sweet Home. While no scenes are illustrated directly, the reader finds through context that the main characters have been raped and brutalized by whites, that men who were slaves had sex with cows and that the lead character chose to kill her infant child and tries to kill her three other children rather than hand her over to slave catchers looking for the family. Morrison, a two-time Nobel Prize winner in literature, won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 for “Beloved.”
“It is a common text that is assigned in literature classrooms,” Manuel-Scott said. “Students have had to deal with violence of the Holocaust and wars; so why is it too difficult when it’s about race?”
Having literary depictions of life in an era can fill in the narrative in a way facts and figures cannot, she said.
“For older students, one way to understand the depth of dehumanization of black women during slavery is to read something like ‘Beloved,’” Manuel-Scott said. “It’s a tale of overcoming, of survival… It’s about figuring out who you are as an individual and a community.”
Why is race in America so hard to talk about?
“It happened right here and this is home, “said South County High School government teacher Deborah Hicks-Johnson. During her nearly 30 years of teaching, Hicks-Johnson, who previously taught middle school, says she has seen students identify more with atrocities like slavery than foreign events like the Holocaust.
“[Students] kind of take ownership,” she said. “It’s difficult because on the black end, they are thinking ‘Oh my God; this is horrible. Why did they do this to us? And the white kids are sitting right there next to the black kids thinking, ‘I didn’t do this.’”
Hicks-Johnson said both her children struggled with black history topics like slavery during their classes in FCPS.
“My son had an incident in class where they were talking about slavery and [the students] all turned around and looked at him. He was the only African American in the class,” she said. “One kid asked him if his grandparents were slaves.”
Despite the difficult subject matter, Hicks-Johnson said slavery, oppression and overcoming inequality are a part of black history lessons to future generations.
“When people don’t talk about things, it becomes more difficult,” she said, adding that she tells her students, “Before you know where you are going, you have to know from whence you came.”
Fellow teacher McKenzie McLeod, who instructs seventh-grade history at South County Middle School, agreed, saying understanding the contributions of every race in America is important to understanding how things are today.
“Especially when dealing with the story of America, it’s important to me that [students] understand that not everyone was treated fairly… I think the kids sometimes don’t get that. They don’t understand why,” he said. “I think with this generation [of students] … they look at these individuals that this happened to as people, not as [members of a] race… Definitely, our curriculums have advanced to include the diversity that we have. The curriculum has caught up with the times.”