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LaGarrett King, Ph.D. (University at Buffalo photo)
LaGarrett King, Ph.D. (University at Buffalo photo)

Teaching Black history is about exploring Black humanity, culture & traditions, UB education expert says


Wed, Jun 14th 2023 07:20 pm

By the University at Buffalo

While lawmakers across the country take aim at how Black history is taught in schools – from dictating language (like avoiding words such as “diversity”) and banning books – educators are walking a tightrope trying to stay on top of it all, while still giving their students a complete picture of American and Black histories. 

Black history is not just simply about racial history, says LaGarrett King, Ph.D., founder and director of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education in the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education. Black history and racial history are linked, salient concepts of Black history emerge through racial history. But, King said, “Black history is more than that. It is about exploring Black humanity, culture and traditions.”

A recent EdWeek Research Center survey reveals that a slight majority of educators are committed to finding ways to teach Black history, regardless of their state’s mandates and other obstacles. Still, teachers cited time constraints and lack of state requirements as challenges to teaching Black history. The political climate doesn’t help, either. King said that issues are limited when it comes to teaching Black history.

“Those topics usually center on slavery, reconstruction, and the civil rights movement,” he said.

State Mandates Lack Substance

According to King, there are currently only 12 states that have Black history mandates. Perhaps more surprising than this number is the weakness of their implementation.

“We have found that many of the mandates are superficial with no authority or accountability,” King explained.

So, what can be done to offset the anti-Black history rhetoric and loose implementation of mandates? This is where the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education plays a crucial and proactive role. The center hosts an annual Teaching Black History conference, which convenes hundreds of teachers from across the country to learn about best curricular and instructional practices surrounding Black history education.

"We host expert speakers and entertainment, but the stars of the conference are our teachers," King said. The 2023 conference takes place July 19-20 at UB. The theme is, “The Sounds of Blackness, Hip Hop Turns 50.”

The center is also working to create a microcredential in teaching Black history.

“The most important person in this endeavor is the teacher,” King said. “Most of these states do not provide education around Black history education. The microcredential is supposed to fill that void.”

‘It’s OK to Not See the US as Perfect’

King’s mission is to advocate for Black history and racial literacy education. The center seeks to help teachers and other educational entities expand opportunities to learn about crucial concepts related to Black history and race – concepts lawmakers are fiercely trying to suppress.

“When you truly teach through Black history or expose how systemic racism has influenced a racialized community, that narrative becomes messy. We are a historically immature society and seemingly cannot handle complexity and nuance,” King said. “We should be able to understand that everything is not Black and white. There is a lot of gray, and it is OK to not see the U.S. as perfect. I think students will appreciate that more.” 

King said students are more intelligent than certain lawmakers think they are.

“My children have picked up on many complex things happening in the world, including racism and injustice,” he said.

The way King sees it, power and control are what’s really driving these new (and ongoing) attempts to limit exposure to a Black history education.

“It is about attempting to control students' thinking and their exposure. By doing that, we are putting all our children at a disadvantage, and we continue to hurt our so-called democracy,” King said. “We should not think about the curriculum as just a curriculum – we should be thinking of it in terms of a citizenship education.”

King added, “We do not live in a monocultural or monolingual world, so these children who will become decision-makers in the near future need to understand a society that not only includes persons that look like them. If we can teach about all folks, our country will become a better place.”

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