We Must Teach Black History Like Our Lives Depend on It

Voices | Diversity and Equity

We Must Teach Black History Like Our Lives Depend on It

By Corey Winchester     Feb 22, 2023

We Must Teach Black History Like Our Lives Depend on It

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

It took me many years to love my Blackness. Much of that had to do with the fact that I was learning about Black histories for the first time. These stories of resilience and triumph allowed me to see my own humanity as a Black person, something I later realized I desperately needed. It helped me shape and define who I was, who I am and who I am becoming. I live for these histories because they are grounded in formal and informal learning communities, whether in schools, public workshops or even my family home where I first saw the value of Black history.

At a time when we are witnessing yet another political battle to restrict students and young people from learning about Black history, I want to remind us all that learning and teaching Black history shouldn’t be a matter of choice or convenience – it is a necessity. I needed to learn about my people in order for me to see my own humanity, and for the students I’ve taught over the past 13 years, I know this to be true. For me, the ability to teach Black history is a matter of life and death. When I teach history, I teach like my life depends on it.

Learning and Teaching About Black Death

When I was 9 years old, I learned about the murder of Emmett Till after reading his story in one of my Aunt Helen’s “Jet” magazines. The discussion I had with my mom after reading about him was one of the most poignant discussions a young person can have about racism in the United States. We had a hard conversation about the realities of racial injustice, policing, the faulty legal system and what it means to survive as a young Black person in America.

There was a level of innocence that I lost at that moment that still haunts me to this day. When a grand jury decided not to charge Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown in 2014, my mom called me, defeated. She tearfully exclaimed, “Corey, there’s nothing I can do to protect you.” I will never forget that moment. The sad truth is that there are Black moms and parents still having these conversations.

Since I began teaching, we have seen countless examples of the same racist and anti-Black violence that claimed Till’s life. When Trayvon Martin was killed, my students and I watched a 2012 clip of Gerardo Rivera blaming Trayvon for his death simply because he wore a hoodie. We discussed how they felt about Rivera’s racist statements and how Rivera’s opinions have informed white-centered histories.

Reflecting on these moments, it is clear that the conversations around the deaths of these young Black men have had a profound impact on me, both as an educator and a human being.

Learning and Teaching About Black Humanity

It’s been over a decade since Trayvon was killed, and I still have no rational answers to offer to young people who look to me for reasons why we continue to kill young Black men like Tyre Nichols.

To some degree, our education system still perpetuates this flat and one-dimensional idea about the fragility of Black life. During my K-12 schooling experience, the story I learned about what it meant to be a Black person taught me two things: that I was less than human, a victim of America’s anti-Black violence, and in order to be seen as human, I had to be successful. In other words, Black humanity lacked complexity and was nearly non-existent. I knew little about the Ella Bakers, Fannie Lou Hamers and Audre Lordes of the world and how they pushed for and practiced liberation through Black feminism. I never heard stories about Black LGBTQ+ people like William Dorsey Swann, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin or Marsha P. Johnson until later in my education journey. They all pushed for a more expansive understanding of Black humanity by embracing their unique identities and expressing their love for Black culture.

I knew that when I became a history teacher, I would need to share stories that show the joy and nuanced history of Black life. Today, I have better language for talking about Black people, traditions and culture in a way that develops a deeper understanding of what it means to be fully human. In the context of Black history, that means showing that Black people are loved.

Part of that work requires elevating and adding layers of complexity to Black stories to show the breadth and depth of our humanity. As an educator, I’ve tried to offer a view of Black life that I didn’t see as a student. Knowing how limiting history curricula can be, I’ve brought in texts and utilized art, music, spoken word and other cultural artifacts that highlight black humanity from a place of love and care. I’ve also attempted more traditional routes by centering counter-narratives of Black people that aren’t rooted in death or violence like Paul Ortiz’s “An African American and Latinx History of the United States” or Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross’ “A Black Women's History of the United States.”

Unfortunately, these curricular adaptations aren’t enough. My Black students and colleagues — whether in my classroom or not — need to know they are loved by how we engage with one another, something education professor Bettina Love and others frame as abolitionist teaching. Engaging in this space of possibility is what I can only hope I’m addressing in my work. I hope that’s the case for my colleagues, too.

The Commitment to Teaching Black History

Political leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis continue to vilify critical race theory and seek limitations on courses like AP African American studies. These efforts ultimately block young people from learning about Black history and contribute to the psychological, cultural and emotional harm that continues to manifest as physical violence in our society.

Black History Month cannot just be a month where we talk about Black history because it’s on our lesson planning calendars; it should inspire a perpetual discussion about the triumphs and tribulations that chronicle Black experiences. Educational spaces must show Black people, like me, that we are loved.

This Black History Month, and every month, I challenge myself and other educators to be unapologetic and radical in teaching Black history. That begins by analyzing our curriculum to offer nuanced perspectives of Black life, engaging in critical discussions with students about racism and Black violence in America, and most importantly, having honest conversations at home with our loved ones about the joy and fragility of Black life — much like my mother did with me.

One of my greatest fears as an educator is that the next Emmett Till or Tyre Nichols is sitting in one of my classes, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I am tired of Black death. As educators, we have a responsibility to teach Black history like our lives depend on it. Mine surely does.

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