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Can America Celebrate Black History Without Teaching It?

February 7, 2019 2:01 p.m.

Guest: Sara Clarke Kaplan, associate professor of Ethnic Studies, UC San Diego

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It is Black History Month a time to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans who are shaping this country. But while black history is celebrated. The question is is it being taught. Can America really celebrate the contributions of African-Americans. If those contributions are excluded from school history books Sara Kaplan is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and critical gender studies at the University of California San Diego and the founder of UCSD Black Studies project. She is joining us to answer some of those questions. Sarah welcome. Thanks so much for having me Jake.

So Carter G Woodson who was a pioneer of African-American history started this celebration because he was bothered by the fact that the contributions of African-Americans were not included in history books at the time. That was back in the 1920s nearly a century later have the history books in San Diego schools and across the country changed much.

Well you know one of the major things that's happening in San Diego right now is actually that ethnic studies is being incorporated increasingly into the curriculum so I should say that whatever is happening right now is hopefully going to get even better in upcoming years. But no I think that traditionally one of the things that we do see is that often the history of African-Americans in particular and black people more broadly even beyond the United States is often covered in a relatively perfunctory manner. We learn about Frederick Douglass. We learn about Martin Luther King.

You know we learn about a few select figures but usually the kind of depth of knowledge that we expect in a elementary or high school history class is often still saved for other topics that are seen of more general interest. Do you think that's intentional. Do I think it's intentional sometimes but not usually. Obviously we can all list the states or the white supremacist school board superintendents who have particular axes to grind we'll see them on Facebook being blown up when they've done something completely crazy. But most of the time I actually think it is often that the educators themselves this school boards the school superintendents don't have a great deal of knowledge themselves.

I think often the way that black history has been taught for generations is a history of slavery in which black people are objects victims people who had to be freed and then a few select figures whose history has often been so profoundly rewritten that we have very little sense of a broader context or a broader sense of the extent to which the United States is built on black labor black innovation black economic involvement. I mean think for example of the massive national uproar even among major politicians when Michelle Obama mentioned that the White House was built by slaves and people didn't believe her.

And I thought What the heck are they teaching in schools that no one knows this.

And what impact do you think these omissions from history have on schoolchildren.

Well you know it reminds me of what Carter Woodson originally said which was that the importance of having what he called Negro History Week when he first founded it in 1926 was that until we understood the history of what he called Negroes African-Americans then there would be no way of understanding their contribution to the world. And politically I'm less interested in the notion that the goal of Black History Month is to convince the larger world that black people have value. I think that that work stands in and of itself. And it's not a project I'm interested in taking on.

I do however think that there is value in us remembering that African-American people and black people more broadly have always had ideas political agency have always been active participants in not only making their own world but in making the world around them.

That in mind how can school districts across the country improve when it comes to educating students on the contributions of African-Americans in the U.S..

I think the first place to start is letting go of the fear of difficult conversations the anxiety about talking about tough topics like disenfranchisement or lynching or slavery. There is no way to tell the history of the United States without sharing that history of injustice and inequality that is not all that the history of African-Americans in the United States is but it is a crucial groundwork to be able to lay. And if we can't have those honest conversations then we can't talk about the amazing work that African-Americans have done to change those conditions of life.

And how is our level of historical understanding reflected in the way that we vote and how policies are formed from one generation to the next.

That's a great question. I think it's really really obvious. We saw in our last presidential election how easy it is to state what are really people's common sense fears and presumptions as fact. And to have people believe them particularly around issues of racial inequality that when you actually look at statistics when you actually look at historical trends when you understand the conditions of life that African-Americans have experienced the contributions that they've made the political labor that they've engaged in then a lot of these kinds of presumptions that racism is over and gone that people are getting special handout that African-Americans are committing war crimes all of these kinds of narratives I think are actually factually untrue.

But if we don't teach this material in schools we can't expect people to necessarily automatically go against all of their prejudices and beliefs that they've been taught to actually understand the real conditions of life.

And also when we talk about history books it's not just black history that's been omitted from the pages. Right.

Absolutely not and that is I think why the new ethnic studies curriculum in San Diego is going to be so important. You know one of the important things about a state like California is that we can't separate the history of black people in California from the history of Asians and Asian-Americans from The History of Chicanos and Latinos from the history of the indigenous populations and the history of white Americans. And one of the things that's really crucial is being able to think about how these histories relate. When I teach slavery to my college freshmen one of the things that I make sure that they understand is that Indigenous people were enslaved before African slaves first arrived in North America and after as well that in fact there were long negotiations in North and South America about the relationship of indigenous people as slaves versus the relation to black people as slaves and how it would work.

And these are conversations that are crucial I think you know if we want to talk about the history of Chinese immigration to California we have to understand California's refusal to allow black slaves into the state and how that actually opens the door for profound exploitation of Chinese labor. These issues can't be separated and very few of them are taught. And I think when we talk about Black History Month or any other history month my ideal goal would be actually that every month we will be teaching about relations of race and power and difference in relational ways that incorporated not just one group but all groups.

I've been speaking with Sarah Kaplan an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and critical gender studies at the University of California Sarah. Thank you so much for joining us and Happy Black History Month. Happy Black History Month.