Battling the Miseducation of the Black Student

by Brittany Dawson I was an overachieving high school student who respected all teachers. In part...

by Brittany Dawson

I was an overachieving high school student who respected all teachers. In particular, I enjoyed history, as I found learning about cultures different than my own to be a savory intellectual treat. To my dismay though, this fervid passion towards history evaporated during a 10th grade lecture on the Civil Rights Movement.

In reference to the time between the mid-1940s and the late 1960s, my teacher gleamed and passionately barked the following comment, “Man, those were the GOOD ol’ days.” After a brief moment of silence, students nodded in approval. One inspired peer raised his hand and spoke, a southern drawl made his words purr. “Yeah, that was a simpler time. Why can’t we just go back?”

“Simpler times?” I thought. “Simpler times for who?”

My Black skin never felt so out of place. All I could think of was the Little Rock Nine walking to Little Rock Central High School in search of an education amid racial taunts and embittered White women who could not fathom their child sitting beside a Black student. I remembered images I had seen of Emmett Till’s mangled corpse. Was it “simple” for literary pioneers Toni Morrison and Alice Walker to break the cycle of White male dominated prose? Do we not remember the heavy sobs of Corretta Scott King as she laid her husband to rest? What about the Birmingham Church Bombing of 1963, where four young girls died in the name of keeping things “simple”?

I remembered the names of Black leaders who reshaped American culture, and this emboldened me. Enough was enough. Instead of raising my hand, I spoke without being called on, a subtle form of defiance. “There is nothing simple about the 60s. What about US?” I stammered, balled fists reflected discomfort.

My teacher responded, “Uh...well, you see… I mean, it was a simple time, that’s all.”

That same day, I rushed home, cracked open several of my African-American history books—Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals and Ruby Bridges’ Through My Eyes were one of many— to prove that I wasn’t taking my teacher’s comments out of context. Nope, I wasn’t. After telling my parents about these comments, I was told the real story of the Jim Crow era South and the civil unrest during the 1960s. There was nothing glorious or simple about this time, especially for people of color. Lynchings, riots, and a culture of fear kept many Blacks mentally enslaved. Again, what was so “simple”? It was as though I was learning two different curriculums: Black history, uncut and uncensored at home; and a diluted, abridged “American” narrative in the classroom.

This duality to my learning, or double consciousness (how Blacks view themselves through their eyes and in the eyes of dominant white society), has had a lasting impact on my education. My allegiance, up until that point, automatically valued mainstream Americanized accounts of history. I never questioned why we made pioneers or coal miners emblematic of American grit, nor did I protest reading texts by Thomas Jefferson, “a pivotal figure in history.” Classic literary texts were always classic because America said so. I simply believed it was true. But I felt split in half: What history was my history? It would have been different if we discussed how life was “simple” for certain groups over others. But of course, this conversation did not happen. I was constantly reminded of the difficulties of wearing both identities: Black and American. Despite the push to merge both identities, I—and other minority students—continue to feel invisible when these experiences are told from a limited purview.

If we aim to bridge the gap between what Black students learn at home versus in the classroom, we must provide accurate and culturally sensitive retellings of history. We should value all histories of students; failing to do so suggests non-Eurocentric histories are insignificant. We must act now. Minority students are at risk of receiving one-dimensional, romanticized retellings of history, a highly problematic practice. Sure, double consciousness is intricately bound to how Blacks interact with dominant American ideologies and practices. But shouldn’t our education system provide find ways to value, and teach the histories of all our students? Yes, because students deserve to learn their true histories in the classroom. Of course we can’t rewrite history, but we can reshape how we represent our students through it.

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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