One through line that came out of a conversation on February 25, 2021, between educator LaGarrett King and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones is that American educators have a responsibility to teach “through” Black history, rather than "about" Black history.
They came together in a Pulitzer Center-organized webinar titled “Teaching Black History to Elementary and Middle School Students,” which is a part of The 1619 Project Education Network. The Pulitzer Center is the education partner for The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine's groundbreaking exploration of the legacy of Black Americans starting with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619.
Hannah-Jones is the architect of The 1619 Project and won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her lead essay in the magazine. King is the director of the University of Missouri’s Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education. Ann Peters, the Pulitzer Center’s university and community outreach director, moderated the conversation.
Speaking at the beginning of the webinar, King outlined the problems that educators face when it comes to teaching Black history in schools.
“In many ways, what we are doing is we are teaching about Black history, and we are not teaching through Black history ... through Black people,” King said.
“When you teach Black history through Black perspective, what happens is you have to rethink your whole existence,” King said.
Adding to King’s comments, Hannah-Jones said the lack of Black voices in history education in schools is a massive disservice to the Black community.
“Black people, in this way that history is currently taught, don’t get to be actors,” said Hannah-Jones. “Some bad white people enslaved us, some good white people freed us, and then we disappear from the narrative until Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s March on Washington … but we are not actually actors in the story of America.”
Another major problem, Hannah-Jones added, is that history is an optional course in many schools. She also pointed out that such an exclusion has a huge impact on Black students.
“If it were important, your teachers would teach it to you. So, if your teachers are not teaching it to you, it must not have been important. And, that is a tremendously degrading experience for students of color to think that the reason you don’t appear in your social studies text is because your people didn’t do anything worthy of being taught in the history of your country.”
Offering advice on how to solve some of these problems, King suggested that “teachers’ education programs as well as universities need to require aspects of ethnic studies for all curriculum.”
Speaking to educators, King said, “Without identity work, without changing our mindset, it doesn’t matter what curriculum we ... decide to use in our schools. If you continue to believe that whiteness is central, you can have the best curriculum possible, and still mess it up.”
Answering a question from a webinar participant, King provided some advice to white educators on teaching Black history to middle school students. All educators “have to teach about power, oppression, and racism,” “about Black perseverance and resistance,” “about notions of migrations from various parts of the world,” and “about Black joy and Black love,” he said. Adding to that, Hannah-Jones told educators that it is important to depersonalize yourself from history while teaching it.
“You’re not responsible for what people who you are teaching about did,” Hannah-Jones said. “But your responsibility is to teach that (Black history) as accurately and humanely as possible.”