Afterthought: The Centrality of African Americans in U.S. History and Identity

Article excerpt

Embedded in the articles and lesson plans of this latest volume of Black History Bulletin are foundational concepts to inform and guide us, as educators, in our broader aim of teaching in a way that is inclusive and culturally responsive to all students. With the theme "From Slavery to Freedom," this volume continues the mission--now nearly a century old--of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1915, to educate the American public about the contributions and centrality of African Americans to national history and identity. As educators, we are called upon to give our students not just new perspectives, but renewed power and purpose to help students better understand the historical challenges, processes, and legacies that continue to shape their lives.

Today many educators are aware of the importance of providing a "multicultural" education to prepare young people for the complex and varying social realities of the United States and the world. However, like contributing authors Bailey and Yarbrough, I urge educators to "empower [themselves and students] to discover beyond what is explicitly taught" in history textbooks in order to make visible what is too often invisible about the history of people of color in the United States. By supplying educators with practical ways to integrate African American history into the classroom, Black History Bulletin continues a tradition of empowerment through the pursuit of knowledge and education pioneered by visionaries like W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as through a tradition of community social activism furthered by civil rights activists like Ella Baker of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

In the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and early '60s, large numbers of students and educators alike collectively mobilized to affect concrete change in the values, processes, and priorities of our national educational system. Beginning with the establishment of the first Ethnic Studies program in the United States at San Francisco State University, in 1969, these demands for inclusion resulted in the creation of Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Native American Studies, Asian American Studies, and Women's Studies programs, among others, at universities and colleges across the country. According to a new book on the subject, the emergence of these programs, which have transformed educational curriculum, "represented a tangible effort on the part of faculty, students, and community members to provide a forum within the university to combat racism and discrimination and to give voice and relevancy to the widely diverse experiences and perspectives of groups traditionally and systematically excluded from the mainstream." (a) In short, these social mobilizations institutionalized the transformation of K-12 and university-level curricula to include the distinct experiences of ethnic minority groups and women in U.S. history.

The establishment of these academic programs also provided legitimacy for scholarly research centered on the previously marginalized historical perspectives of African Americans and other people of color. Scholar James Banks explains that, in the 1960s and '70s, "scholars of color published critiques of much of the previous research that had been done on their histories and cultures by White scholars [and] argued that much of this research presented inaccurate and distorted views of their experiences, histories, and cultures." (b) In response to these critiques, emerging scholars of color "developed and published studies that presented their histories and cultures from 'insider' perspectives that were more accurate, complex, and compassionate." (c) In the resulting wave of historical research, African Americans were depicted as active agents, not just passive victims, of their historical circumstances. The lesson plans of this edition of Black History Bulletin continue in this approach. …