Local historians call out the whitewashing of black history in school curriculums.
When Dr. Shana Hunt graduated from high school and attended Paine College in Agusta Georgia, she thought she was “pretty together” with her blackness and understanding of Black history. However, learning about all the historical achievements of Black people she didn’t know blew her mind. She didn’t know about the detailed works of Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, or Langston Hughes. Going to college opened her eyes to many things she was missing. From then on, she vowed to tell the truth regarding history in any classroom she taught.
Dr. Hunt is now the Creative Writing Department Chair at Dekalb School of the Arts. To teach culture and intersectionality to her students through writing, she asks them to read and write about experiences apart from their own. Although these experiences often include race, they are not limited to it. She also prompts her students to learn more about religion, gender, and sexuality. She says that most of her students are receptive to learning about these cultures and opening their minds, with some even getting emotional during the process.
“They cried when they realized that they had been closed-minded and were excluding people and their abilities because of race,” she says. “It was a shocking moment for me, but I was like, You’ve got to look beyond your way of life. Your way of life is not everyone else’s way of life.”
While pushback from students in any classroom will inevitably happen, multiple states have approved standards pushing back the topic of intersectionality in the U.S. In May, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission voted unanimously to remove “woke” words including “diversity” and “inclusion” from the state’s teacher preparation rules. In July, the Florida Board of Education approved new standards for the teaching of African-American history that say some enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Combine these decisions with the sweeping book bans in this country, and there is a phenomenon that critics describe as a “whitewashing” of Black history.
“I definitely would say that Black history is whitewashed. Many White men are praised in school curricula for things they did not do or invent first. I also feel that many aspects of Black history are overlooked even when the topic is discussed.” according to Zaria, a 12th Grader in Marietta City Schools, many schools treat the discussion of Black history as a box to check rather than an opportunity to educate. The implementation of more diverse curriculums would change this.”
According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, these practices can limit the range of ideas available to students, undermining their education and hindering their understanding of societal issues. Students’ school environment plays a vital role in how they see the world around them – even as early as elementary school. Dr. Wintre Foxworth Johnson, assistant professor at The University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development wrote in the Education Week article “Black History Belongs in Early Elementary School (Opinion)” that “Early elementary—grades K through 2—is a particularly fertile time for children to learn about and explore these stories, making elementary educators critical in raising students’ awareness and working toward racial justice.”
According to Bailey, an 11th grader in Decatur County Schools, “Schools are most definitely whitewashed when it comes to Black History. There are always truths omitted to make the entire “story” to not sound as bad and as to not hurt other’s feelings, when in reality those that they’re “protecting” are the one’s who need to hear it the most. I attended a PWI (Academe of the Oaks) for my first two years of high school and when it came to Black History it wasn’t as raw as needed. Slavery was pretty much avoided and wasn’t really spoken of and coincidentally the ones teaching the class as well as the other classes relevant to people of color were taught by white people. I personally think going forward, all classes of this sort should be taught by Black people because we’re subject matter experts. It’s a little odd to hear a white man speak about police brutality when it’s people like him committing it. And it’s also weird to hear your English teacher whom is a 30 year old white male sort of flex that he was the teacher of the cousin/niece of Michael Brown who was murdered in 2014.”
The ongoing debate on “anti-wokeness” can create a challenging landscape for students and teachers. Former history teacher and current Dekalb County Schools Educator Dr. Ingrid Wright is all too familiar with this landscape. “We have this challenge as to how far we can go or would go with teaching certain concepts, she says. “So those individuals who are in support of not teaching “critical race theory” or whatever – they have their own definition of what it actually is. They will use words like, not talking about race or inclusion. Basically what it is, is they don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable about what is being taught.”
However, learning about U.S. history is bound to create some uncomfortable feelings, especially for Black people who still experience the effects of slavery and segregation. “I feel like if Black children are having to go through being taught how to keep themselves in the clear from issues with police, our children have to be taught certain behaviors, that’s uncomfortable for our children,” Dr. Wright says. “So on the flip side, I think the truth of history should be taught. I don’t think it is something that people should be fearful of. I think it’s something that should be embraced because if you teach the truth about what happened, well, what happens is you give children an understanding of each other.”
Dr Hunt says an effective way for Black people to prevent the spread of whitewashed history is to do the opposite. Spread accurate history through research, writing, and most importantly, storytelling. After all, the best way to know about something is to experience it firsthand.
“That’s how you do it. You just share. You bring it up in class, you question, you go to college, and you ask questions,” Dr. Hunt says. “You just don’t say, accept somebody’s right answer. Even in my class, I do allow questions, and I’m good for saying, I don’t know, but let’s find out and hearing other people’s opinions. But yeah, I think if you’re worried about that, I think you are the answer to that.”
In the wake of the legislation said to suppress marginalized voices alongside recent book bans, students, parents, and teachers are having more conversations about their history. There is also an effort to read banned books with protests in counties like Cobb, with Black scholars recommending books for students to read. Time will tell how these efforts change the local landscape of history lessons.