On Race, We Must Understand the Past to Take Action Today

To equip students to take action on the racial justice issues facing our world today, our history classes must be diverse, accurate and reflective of the U.S.’s oppressive past.

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Passionate youth activist fighting for educational equity who believes in the power stories hold, whether they are known or yet to be told. Interested in psychology and science. Loves books, music and baking.

(Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

Race is a social construct that the world just can’t seem to move past.

At some point in your life you are bound to come face to face with what race is, one way or another. For me, it was in the midst of a Pre-K game. We were choosing what “flavor character” we would be, and confusion and anger clouded my thoughts when the other kids told me I had to choose chocolate, despite my favorite flavor being vanilla at the time. 

However, while many are aware of what race is, most people do not know how deep the roots of racism in our country go, especially when it comes to Black America.

If you were to choose 100 people at random and ask them to raise their hands if they knew that slavery existed in the U.S., most likely everyone would. However, more hands would gradually be lowered once asked about the numerous injustices towards African Americans, many of which our textbooks always fail to mention.

At this point, you may be asking yourself a simple question. Why? Why is there so much that we don’t know about our own country?

The answer? Simple. Our education system is not doing enough to ensure that students know the true history of the United States of America.

What They’re Not Telling You

U.S. history classes are known for teaching whitewashed history and mentioning the same aspects of African American history every year like a broken record, and my school is no different.

Throughout my freshman and sophomore years of high school, regardless of the time period or nation of focus, the history curriculum never mentioned Black people unless the conversation was about or leading up to slavery. Even then, there were countless historical details that were either glossed over or never brought up to begin with. 

Did you know about the horror that was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study? This experiment used Black male farmers as test subjects until they met death with ineffective medications and empty promises in their hearts. Did you know about the usage of enslaved Black mothers as milk bottles for their mistresses’ white babies? ( Mothers’ milk: slavery, wet­nursing, and black and white women in the Antebellum South, University of Reading) They would have to breastfeed the white baby for weeks after childbirth, stripping the Black mother of time with her own baby. This is just the surface, but I know this was never a part of my history lessons.

The Education System’s Irresponsibility is an Injustice in Itself

Neglecting to tell the true stories of the people who built this country is an injustice that will always be personal until amends are made. When it comes to African American history, the typical names and events like the Civil War of 1865, the March on Washington, MLK, Rosa Parks, etc. are always mentioned. While the stories behind these names are important, these can not be the only ones that are told. 

What about how Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus before Rosa Parks did? Or how historically Black colleges opened their doors to Jewish students seeking asylum during WWII when the U.S. government was reluctant to do so? (African American history you probably weren’t told in school, The Insider) How come this side of history doesn’t have its own set of pages?

The disheartening reality is that much of what I know about African American history was learned through social media and articles I researched on my own, rather than through the institution I attend solely to further my education.

The Need for “Hard Conversations”

Years ago, whenever I thought about the gap between the resources provided to NYC’s public and private schools, or how yet another Black man’s life was lost to the monster known as police brutality, it never occured to me that I could be more than a bystander. Now, I am a youth activist fighting against racial injustice and educational inequity. But just imagine how different things could have been if my classes had addressed these “hard conversations” rather than skirting around them. Not only would I have been better equipped to take on the current social issues of today, but I probably would have joined the fight sooner. 

Conversations about all forms of racial injustice need to be had within our schools. As stated in the seventh Moving School Forward Guiding Principle, educating our youth on the full story of this country’s history of racial injustice is a necessary step in preparing the next generation to be the leaders of tomorrow. This means including more POC narratives in the textbooks, diving further into all sides of U.S. history with each coming year—rather than sticking to the surface— and giving students the resources that they need to connect the past to the present in order to work towards a better future.