White on Black: Reflections on My Lack of Black History Education
I grew up a Massachusetts liberal in a 95% white town, and then I moved to New York City, where I lived my entire adult life up until now (I’m back in that little Massachusetts town now). I have voted Democrat almost every time. I consider that my early education was good, and my later education also. I took an entire graduate course on James Baldwin. And . . . here comes that dreaded phrase . . . I do have black friends.
And yet . . . I never knew what Juneteenth was until a few years ago, thanks to the progressive leadership of Rev. Jacqui Lewis and the staff and diverse congregation of Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village of New York City, where I was a member and on the board for a time. (I did know about the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln signed in 1862 — but the last vestiges of slavery did not end until June 19, 1865 — Juneteenth.)
I never knew about the Tulsa Massacre until a few years ago.
I knew nothing of the hidden figures behind NASA’s success in the early ’60s until a blockbuster 2016 film shed light on them.
These were serious gaps in my knowledge. I know I am not alone.
I have a B.A. and Master’s degree in English, so I read a lot. Clearly, still not enough. I am not nearly as “woke” and liberal as I think I am. Black history is white history and white history is black history; they are forever intertwined. Even if you grew up in a small, mostly white town, as I did.
There were some great teachers when I was young. I remember one child of Puerto Rican heritage, Alvin, who came to our school in fifth grade. In sixth grade, another kid called him a “spic.” Nobody but Alvin and the kid and the teacher Alvin presumably told would have known this, but the teacher, Mrs. O’Malley, decided to hold a meeting in a large room where all three sixth grade classes would meet. There, the three teachers, led by Mrs. O’Malley, explained why the remark was racist and wrong, and then led a discussion with the students.
It was the first time I became aware of racism in my young life. You see, I lived in a white town where race “wasn’t a problem.” Until, clearly, it was. A lot of white people in white towns will tell you “I don’t see race,” as a way to explain away any difficult conversations. And actually, they do not see race, most of the time. But I bet when the rare person of color comes walking down their street, they do. They can’t escape race problems by refusing to talk about the problem or saying it isn’t a problem because they don’t live in the inner city.
Recalling my early education (elementary and high school), we did learn about Martin Luther King (you know, the “I Have a Dream” speech, not Letters from a Birmingham Jail), Rosa Parks (a nice lady who quietly sat for her rights), and maybe Frederick Douglass and George Washington Carver (he invented the peanut!). Black Boy by Richard Wright was the token piece of fiction by a black writer, as I recall.
The rest of my black history education came later, and over forty years. I’m still trying to catch up.
But I ask myself, “If I, with my education and curiosity, have had gaps in my knowledge of black history, where do most Americans stand? Hell, where do black children stand, in learning the history of their own people?”
Too many people (okay, white people) who are tired of merely hearing about race (without actually having lived under the heavy foot of racism) don’t seem to have the appetite to reconfigure school curriculums to address this lack of content in our education.
If we need laws to make this happen, there will be a segment of the population (okay, white people) who will think the government is “giving them everything.” (And, by the way, THEM can mean blacks, Hispanics, LGBT — anyone they perceive is upending the comfortable apple cart they have been riding in for centuries.)
Where I teach, I am the minority and sometimes the only white person in the room. I take my cue from Mrs. O’Malley: When given the opportunity (and these days there are many), I bring up race in the classroom. I’m aware that some may not appreciate it (“Oh no, old Prof. White is gonna ask us about race again!”). Honestly, fifteen years of teaching have taught me more about race than anything they can learn from me on the subject. Or anything I can learn from books, for that matter.
Teachers, let’s not wait for Congress to mandate that we teach a curriculum on matters of race. The material is already there for us to learn. We can do better.
Let’s do the right thing here.