Discovering your true identity is one of life's greatest quests. History plays a role in connecting the dots, but for African American students, the lack of information taught on their culture could leave some starving for a sense of self.
When black history is taught in school, often its first exposure comes through slavery. With students struggling to gain more understanding of their roots, Illinois State University history-social sciences education majors Christian Johnson and Tatiana Walker said for the next generation, topics need to become broader.
"There needs to be a transition. We need to talk about more positive things that were done because that gets overlooked," Johnson said. "Persevering through slavery was also positive, but there are people who created inventions that we don't talk about. I think as we move forward, that would be more motivating for the younger students coming up."
While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks have become known faces in black history, one of the first steps for transitioning begins with exposing students to figures that go unnoticed.
Walker said doing so will help students develop historical empathy.
"Understanding the figure for its time and what was going on at that time is important," Walker said. "There's figures like (union leader) A. Philip Randolph, (gay civil rights leader) Bayard Rustin, the NAACP, and all these different organizations that are important but I didn't learn about them in high or middle school. I feel like those are the kind of things that need to be covered when we're talking about the civil rights movement or just black history as a whole."
Johnson said teachers must put their stories into context.
“Rosa Parks, for example, talk about why she got on the bus instead of just saying she was the person that got on the bus, you know? Break them down and tell their story so it shows a bigger level of relevance and not just the effects,” he said.
Aiming to become history teachers in the near future, Walker and Johnson said putting the pieces together for their students is essential.
"I don't even remember it being taught. I know we talked about slavery and things of that nature, but we didn't cover it like I think we should have," Walker said.
"I had to take an African American history course to learn it," Johnson said. "It was never really in my history courses, and when it was, it was told from a victor's perspective, in the sense that America did what was necessary."
For his lessons, Johnson plans to mention movements that occurred over the years that are still relevant today.
"The killings of African American children by police was a very big epidemic, and it's still going on. I think Black Lives Matter shined a light that we needed on something that was occurring. So in my classes, I would definitely talk about them,” he said.
Walker also plans to teach students on the Black Lives Matter movement, and what lies behind it.
"I would talk about political engagement. I think that's a way for students to see how people got involved and did something for what they believed in, but I would want my students to understand policy ends too. When we're dealing with these issues we need policy settings and places to combat what we're facing. I would really want to stress that to my students,” she said.
With signs of resurgent white nationalism, Johnson said teaching black history is critical today because it helps students develop confidence.
"You can get so many things thrown at you that you lose your identity," Johnson said. "I can teach you how great you are in contrast to white nationalists telling you how weak your race is, or how you get these innate abilities and you're not as intelligent as them. That's the way that I can see teaching African Americans, by uplifting my students in a time when people are trying to downgrade them," he said.
Walker and Johnson said teaching and learning black history will always be relevant.
"When you learn about these people that went through struggles way worse than what we're going through today, it shows that we can persevere and we have the power if we all come together to make change.” Johnson said. “For me, seeing that my ancestors went through slavery has helped develop a confidence to know that I can get through any struggle as long as I keep fighting.”
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