Black people in America have had their history brutally removed before. We were brought to a strange land and forbidden to communicate in our native tongues. Many weren’t allowed to read or write. One reason was to prevent word of uprisings in other parts of the world, like in Haiti. 

Some were allowed to read the Bible and were presented with Christianity as the key to salvation. A slave Bible made its way through the West Indies and America with all the references to revolution and freedom removed. Moses never escaped Pharoah in Exodus in the slave bible. The enslaved were taught to comply and obey.

Slave Bible. Photo taken at Fisk University Library by Carol Spivey.

Black History wasn’t taught to the first arrivals; every effort was made to sever the connections to a land where there were Black Kings and Queens. There were slaves as well, but that slavery was nothing like the chattel slavery practiced in America. Despite efforts to contain it, Black History was passed down by griots in stories and songs. Inconvenient histories were often denied until proven by DNA.

After enslavement came schools and education. Black children were taught much about European History and little of their own. What they were taught about the American experience of Black people was edited out of concern for retribution; today, it’s edited out of fear of reparations.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson saw the need to teach Black History, not just to Black children but to all children. He felt all Americans should understand the often overlooked achievements of Black people. Woodson was a dues-paying member of the American Historical Association but was barred from attending their conferences. 

Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 in Chicago, describing its mission as the scientific study of the “neglected aspects of Negro life and history.” The following year, he started the scholarly Journal of Negro History, which is still published under the name Journal of African American History.

In 1926, Woodson launched Negro History Week. He selected the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. That week was eventually expanded into Black History Month, which we have today.

When I was in grade school, it was still Negro History Week, as taught by my white teachers. I recall the same few topics taught each year: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, Benjamin Banneker, and Booker T. Washington. We touched on inventors like Garrett Morgan, who invented the stoplight, and scientists like George Washington Carver and the over one hundred uses he developed for the peanut.

In later years, we briefly learned about W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Nat Turner. We got bits and pieces of their accomplishments but needed more regarding their motivations.

I recently asked one of my granddaughters, a fifth grader, what she was learning about Black History. Usually, my questions about school elicit two- or three-word answers, but this time, I got a lengthy story about Ruby’s experience and how she was bullied and attended class by herself for her first year as she was the first African American to integrate New Orleans public schools. When I asked another question, I discovered this wasn’t something she learned in school but by watching a movie on Disney Plus. That movie is currently under review in a Florida school district after a parent complained about the racial slurs Ruby experienced as a first grader.

Black History is under attack. I could expand that statement to say that Blackness is under attack as part of the culture war dividing America. There is a segment that believes white people are the victims of reverse discrimination and every historical effort to address past (and present) grievances is racism against white people. This includes attacks on Affirmative Action, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), and continued voter suppression, as evidenced by hundreds of new laws designed to make voting harder, particularly for young people and minorities. Part of that effort is to erase the history that created the need to address various wrongs.

My state of Florida is the best present-day example. Its legislature is responsible for changes in the AP Black History curriculum to present white people as kinder and gentler. The state’s revisionist curriculum sanitizes Black History while highlighting white abolitionists and suggesting well-intentioned motives for some white people that didn’t exist.

To be fair, I agree that Florida teaches a robust Black History, covering far more subjects than I was ever taught in school. But Florida teaches a “nice” history, one in which the statistically high number of births of enslaved people is described repeatedly as “natural reproduction” instead of being correctly attributed to forced breeding and rape. A Black elected Florida Secretary of State is discussed without mentioning that his death in office may have been due to his being poisoned by his white enemies. This new Black History in Florida has to meet the narrative, or it doesn’t get approved. I almost forgot the part where Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suggested slavery provided benefits to Black people by teaching them skills.

New Florida standards teach that Black people benefited from slavery because it taught useful skills
The standards, which were blasted by a statewide teachers’ union as a “step backward,” were approved Wednesday by the State Board of Education.

Black History is under attack, which is why, more than ever, we need to get it right in 2024. We are increasingly seeing MAGA-controlled school boards removing books for review based on organized complaints from parents who mostly haven’t read the books. Black and LGBTQ authors have been targeted, including many considered classics. 

Removed books in various locations include Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Boy and Native Son by Richard Wright, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Johnson, Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X by Alex Haley, and The 1619 Project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The rationale for removing these books is very little different than producing a slave Bible: They don’t want Black people to understand their history lest they both learn from it and respond. Add to that the desire to make white people look and feel better as they promote American Exceptionalism as the model. 

We have lost our history in the past, depending on an oral tradition to keep our history alive until it could be recorded. This time, we can record and distribute our history. When The 1619 Project was published, it was attacked with an attempt to discredit it. So was Sally Hemings’s story for decades until it was proven true. 

Those who can, must tell our stories so they live on beyond book bans and removals. At least for now, the Internet is forever, which is just how long our history must be told

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