Kerry Washington—actor, director and producer—told Jimmy Kimmel last week it is important to teach kids a Black history that starts before slavery: “before Black people were told what they couldn’t do.”
Washington’s point is valid: Few school systems today teach about the history and culture of Black people predating the arrival of Europeans in the 1400s, or the arrival of the first slave ship in the U.S. in 1619.
Black history in the U.S. school system is taught through a white lens. Few get the chance to learn about Blackness as a separate entity than whiteness—that is, when history is told, Black people exist in relation to white people.
In the Kimmel interview, Washington brought up historical subjects such as the Maasai Warriors, the kingdoms of Ghana, Queen Nefertiti and the pyramids of Egypt. Others have posited topics such as the Mali Empire, the Kingdom of Aksum, the African Diaspora, the Harlem Renaissance, the advent of musical genres like the blues and jazz, Black civic engagement and the impact of Black literature, art, inventions and culture.
Coshandra Dillard, a writer for Teaching Tolerance, notes, it is important for students to know that “people of African descent have contributed more than forced, free labor to U.S. history.”
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As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it, there is danger in telling a single story.
Black history goes back thousands of years, and cannot be solely taught in a manner defined by its must painful and brutal period. It is about time that U.S. curriculums do it more justice. Say goodbye to only one (often sanitized) Black History Month—and hello a lifelong education of Black history that begins well before 1619.
“[I think it’s really important] teaching kids that Black History and Black People were a lot of things before segregation and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement,” added Washington in the interview, “so that we understand the beautiful complexity and, like, elegance and richness of Black History before refusing to be put in the back of the bus.”
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