During my nearly twenty-year teaching career in the field of African-American Studies, I have learned many lessons regarding the process of education, meaning its potential impact upon the minds, imagination, aspirations, and psyche of my African-American students. Quite possibly the most disconcerting aspect of it all is that so many of our children know absolutely nothing about the path that their ancestors have traveled not only on the North American continent, but also their existence prior to the arrival of Europeans along the West Coast of Alkebulan (Africa).
Years of experience has taught me that the ‘average’ African-American is better versed in the history of those who have historically enslaved or colonized their ancestors than they are regarding their own people’s history. Although I am not a conspiracy buff, there is no other way of looking at the process that has led our people to such a pitiful state than to consider it an intentional design. From my perspective, the engagement of our children in the standard K-16 educational process is bound to leave them devoid of any significant understanding of their incredible past.
To be absolutely honest with you, I actually dread the initial class meeting of every semester because I know that it is bound to leave me absolutely heartbroken, disconcerted, and troubled on a soul level. The typical initial meeting date between my students and me invariably spirals out of control when they are introducing themselves, it is truly an effort to gauge their understanding of African-American history and literature that I ask them to either name me their favorite author or favorite book.
I do not think that it is unreasonable to anticipate that when pressed to reveal their favorite authors that the African-American collegians assembled in front of me would cite some combination of Alice Walker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Maya Angelou, W.E.B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, J. California Cooper, Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, Gloria Naylor, Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Nella Larsen, or Ntozake Shange. Words cannot convey the sadness that covers my soul when my students not only fail to name any of the aforementioned authors but also reveal that they have never heard of them, let alone engaged their brilliant works.
Considering that the aforementioned sad and sordid tale that positions my spirits into a place that closely reflects Louis Armstrong’s classic recording St. James Infirmary occurs every semester, I use a simple query that illuminates the innumerable cavernous flaws that are apparent in their educational experience. The alluded to query is a relatively mundane one of, “How many of you have read Anne Frank?” Invariably, every hand rises. I then ask the overwhelmingly Black audience; “Now which of these texts, The Diary of Anne Frank or The Autobiography of Malcolm X do you think is more applicable to your life? The story of a Jewish girl hiding in a closet or the one that follows the life of Black man in America who to this day is revered by your people?” Nary a word is ever uttered.
I have learned that there are certain assertions that must be forthrightly stated when discussing matters such as this, so I am forthrightly stating that I have no problem with students around the globe reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I, along with droves of others consider the text to be significant. Hence, I refuse to advance an argument that challenges that text as being a dispensable part of world literature. Unfortunately, African-American stories are not extended the same respect.
Those who discount the dangers of promoting one story of human suffering over another, fail to recognize education’s impact upon the mind. Considering that humans learn everything that we know or at least what we think that we know through personal experience or life lessons, our entire reality is subject to external stimuli. Put simply, what we are exposed to during the educational process goes a long way toward us making sense of the world around us. Hence, matters surrounding curriculum should not be taken lightly.
Unfortunately, those making critical decisions regarding curriculum have constructed a system that produces children, including African-American children, who have a deep disdain, if not blatant hostility toward African-Americans. If permitted the opportunity, I would love to ask the committees and decision-makers that illogically hail the worth of Anne Frank’s story while maintaining the worthlessness of The Autobiography of Malcolm X the following questions.
- What is your rationale for including the diary of Anne Frank on the must read list and not The Autobiography of Malcolm X?
- Why do you think that Anne Frank’s story is more valuable than Malcolm X’s?
- What impact do you think that a K-16 educational experience that is devoid of any African-American books has upon the minds of students regardless of their racial identity or ethnic background?
- What does it mean when school districts fail to include any classic stories that center upon African-Americans or the African-American experience?
Although the consequences of African-Americans not learning their history is obvious: low self-esteem, lack of knowledge of self, and eventually being turned off from the discipline of history, if not the entire educational experience in its totality. Unbeknownst to most, African-American children are not the only group damaged when the African-American story is left out of the standard American History/Social Studies curriculum; it damages each child, regardless of racial identity in the following ways:
- It allows for the development of woeful ignorance in regards to African- Americans and their historical experience.
- Gives the impression that persons of African descent have never contributed anything to society; thereby, allowing for racism to grow like a wildfire.
- The lack of any understanding of the African-American experience or contributions throughout the annals of time severely taints any racial discussions.
It is out of a desperate desire to cease the seemingly never-ending racial animosity between groups that I call for those who construct school curriculums to consider the stories of myriad races and groups. History clearly dictates that the only weapon we have against ignorance is education. Considering such truth, it is long overdue for American children, including African-American children, to have access to classic African-American texts and authors, it is the only weapon that we have against racial animosity and angst in the new millennium after all.
Dr. James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, Race, and Culture, 2016