February 21, 2024

Challenges of teaching Black history focus of February program

Source:  NYSUT Social Justice
black history month event

The “Power of Education” was the theme of a February Black History Month Thought Leaders Forum moderated by J. Philippe Abraham, NYSUT secretary treasurer. The event was part of NYSUT’s Many Threads, One Fabric social justice series. “We are challenging historical erasure by reclaiming Black history,” said Abraham in welcoming remarks. “History is not just a call to reflection, but a call to action.”

Noting our nation’s tarnished history surrounding race, Abraham termed education “One of the most effective tools to create awareness and fight back against injustice.” He cited NYSUT’s 2024 Black History Month poster featuring “Tulsa’s Black Wall Street” as an example of both celebrating the achievements of Black Americans and shedding light on tragic events like the Tulsa race massacre.

NYSUT President Melinda Person agreed. “Our nation is at a crucial moment, we’re confronted with a troubling trend that seeks to diminish, distort or outright erase Black history from our public-school curriculum,” she said. “It not only undermines the significance of Black contributions to our nation but deprives our students of a comprehensive and truthful understanding of American history.”

Person called for educators to stand against these efforts by making their classrooms places of inclusivity, understanding and respect for all histories and voices.

A slate of speakers discussed the challenges educators of color face when teaching Black history. Teaching Black history from a position of perseverance and strength, rather than reducing enslaved Blacks to their institution, is important, said LaShonda Bradberry, a special education teacher at Cheektowaga Central High School. “They were people first who had skills,” said Bradberry noting that she often teaches her students that they were the first chefs, blacksmiths and skilled tradesmen, helping to build the country. “That alone can change the way a child feels in the classroom.”

Emmanuel Blanchard Jr., a history teacher at North Shore High School on Long Island, discussed how limiting Black history lessons to a handful of prominent figures, such as Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King Jr., can be disempowering for students. “It reduces groups of individuals to caricatures of themselves … that you’re nothing more than two figures in history,” said Blanchard noting that often even when those figures are taught, they receive scant treatment, such as only discussing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “The erasure of history is the erasure of the individual and there are dire consequences to that.”

Students who aren’t Black and brown also benefit from Black history lessons, said Johanna Josaphat, a middle school educator at the Urban Assembly Unison School in Brooklyn. “Learning the history and being able to celebrate all members of their community is very important for students,” she said. “It changes their perception, how they see themselves and how they view others.”

Learning their history also empowers Black students, said Zenya Richardson, a program director and assistant professor at Rockland Community College. “Learning about yourself gives you permission to be proud of your history … it’s an acknowledgement of where you come from and helps you see where you can go.”

Richardson advised her fellow educators to be kind to themselves as they work to dismantle systemic racism in education. “We might not get where we want to in our lifetimes, but there will be students standing on our shoulders.”

For more information about NYSUT Social Justice, visit nysut.org/socialjustice.