Deciphering the Backlash Against Teaching Black History

African History Project - Black Man Mask guy Fawkes copy

by KOFI ADJEI

Lawmakers in the United States recently filed legislation to ban teaching content from the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which frames American history in light of the legacy of slavery. In one state, a charter school was met with agitation when it allowed parents to opt out of the curriculum for Black History Month last February. 

The backlash comes amid a renewed interest in teaching “quality, critical, humanistic Black history in the classrooms,” says Professor LaGarrett King, director of the Carter Center for Black History Education at the University of Missouri College of Education. School districts across the United States launched professional development programs “to help their teachers teach Black history in their classrooms, really to kind of connect why these movements were so important in today’s society,” he adds. Several states have passed legislation mandating Black history be taught in public schools.

Globally, especially in the US and UK, there is great opposition to teaching Black history with either a rejection of the integration of Black history into existing curricula or negative and racist comments (and sometimes even death threats) towards schools and educators advocating for Black history classes.

African History Project - Racist Comments (1)
A comment on a recent AHP Facebook post

Is it not interesting that two of the most powerful countries and economies in the world are the top locations where teaching Black history receives the most criticism and opposition? Could it be that this stiff backlash is a result of a fear of revolution which Eddie Glaude, professor of African American studies at Princeton University, describes as manifesting “when a Black man, whose destiny and identity have always been controlled by others, decides and states that he will control his destiny and rejects the identity given to him by others”? I feel that this fear is something that many white people may not admit to or even be able to understand but is present. 

Glaude says that ultimately it is about denial: the backlash is part of “America’s exquisitely painful and frustrating struggle to face the truth of its treatment of Black people over centuries”. Though Glaude is speaking about the US, his comment could equally apply to the UK.

When Steve Biko, the South African freedom fighter, was denied accommodation at a conference of the national student association in 1967, what surprised him most was not the university’s behaviour, but the fact that the white students he had travelled with had accepted their accommodation knowing he and the other Black students would have to sleep in a church hall. “They could not see why [we] could not consider staying in that church,” Biko says, “they wanted us to accept things that were second-class”. 

“When a Black man, whose destiny and identity have always been controlled by others, decides and states that he will control his destiny and rejects the identity given to him by others, it is a revolution”

– Professor Eddie Glaude, Princeton University

There seems to be something of this sentiment in the recent backlash to Black history education, especially from the more liberal elements. It seems to be a subtle way for white people to say that they have done enough to bridge the gap between the global south and the west and even the gap between Black and white people in these two locations. You can almost hear the actual questions they wish to shout: “What else do Black people want?” Haven’t we done enough – we have released you from slavery, we have let you have Africa, we have admitted you into our schools; are you not satisfied?

In the UK, there was an outcry when a recent report stated that racism in Britain was not institutional. Many people lambasted the UK Government as they believed the country had not yet done enough to receive this adulation. The report was heavily criticized as many argued that even teaching Black history in schools in the UK remained a challenge. Many critics say that for a Government that wants to be seen as non-racial, enabling a representative curriculum would be a great start.


Find out more: Foundation Certificate in Teaching Black History in Schools


National exam data from the UK collated by The Guardian newspaper shows that although schools are permitted to teach Black history few of them do. Only 11% of students studying for national exams are studying modules that refer to Black people’s contribution to Britain. And less than one in 10 are studying a module with a focus on empire, despite this being a significant part of the last 400 years of British history. Of the 59 history modules available from the three biggest exam boards, only 12 explicitly mention Black history. And of those, only five mention the history of Black people in Britain; the rest are about Black people in the US, other countries, or the transatlantic slave trade.

As an organization based in the UK, the African History Project (AHP) focuses on educating all and sundry on Black history, Political Thought, and Culture. We have not been spared in the criticism and backlash for our commitment to showcasing constructive and critical Black historical narratives. We are unrelenting in all efforts because we realise the grave consequences of not providing this education. 

We believe strongly that people must be made aware of the contributions that were made by Black people to the development of Britain. We want to support teachers to deliver constructive and engaging history programmes that don’t shy away from addressing these important aspects of the nation’s history. In regards to world history, Black history goes beyond contact with the Europeans; Black people have always had their history and we want to support teachers to be able to teach robust Black world history too. 

We feel that it’s vital for all students to see constructive depictions of themselves reflected in the classroom. After all, can we really claim to be nurturing global citizens if we exclude the historical narratives of the people and descendents of the second biggest continent in the world? 

It is because of this that the AHP designs courses and runs lectures to provide Black history education to all looking for it.

If you would like information about our courses, please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@africanhistoryproject.org.

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