What I Learned From My Black History Teacher

There's a scene in the movie Roots, the television miniseries based on Alex Haley's 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, that has stayed with me all my life. A mother and her child are being separated by the slave trade. They are reaching for each other and sobbing as one is carried away from the other.

I sat in my seat in my 8th grade history/geography/social studies (middle school is weird) class, watching and crying. In fact, I cried almost every day that semester as we watched all 9.5 hours of Roots in 50 minute segments.

My teacher was an African American man. And in our class, he leaned the curriculum towards black history.

And as you might imagine, some people complained. I complained. Students mumbled among ourselves and said the same things that white folks often say when the black experience is highlighted.

Why are we focused just on black history? We should be learning all history.

The assumption in our 8th grade minds, of course, was that if we studied all history, black history would be included. What I didn't know then was that most of what I learned in my 8th grade history class, I would never hear again throughout high school or college.

When I attended "regular" history classes, the attention to black history was cliched and repetitive: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks. There is nothing wrong with these historical figures and their impact, of course. But when it is the extent of the lessons, it's easy to assume that their accomplishments were the main (or only) contributions of black folks in our history. And that their impact is primarily related to the freedom and rights of African American people.

I will be honest, though. Besides that heart-breaking film sequence, I remember very few specifics from my 8th grade history class. (Do you?) But especially because much of the material was never reinforced in later years.

However, thanks to his unique focus, I learned something very important:

Black History exists.
Black History matters.
And Black History is often ignored.

If I have never been exposed to the breadth of black history in that class, I would never have recognized how much I was missing later on in my education.

It's why I always feel myself bristle when people grumble or push back on Black History Month. If you've never studied it, you don't know what you're missing. Because too often our "general" history education skirts past the contributions of African Americans in our history.

I'm thankful for that teacher and the seed he planted. And I'm thankful that we highlight Black History Month, as well as other minority groups throughout the year. My hope is that as we turn our attention to highlight others' experiences, we will actually be studying all of history.

What's your favorite resource or site for Black History Month? Feel free to share in the comments! 

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