During my nearly two decades as an African-American Studies Professor, I have learned many lessons regarding the U.S. educational process and its impact on the minds, imagination, aspirations, and psyche of African-Americans. I am confident that you agree that one of the most unfortunate by-products of the American educational system is that the vast majority of black children matriculate through the system without any understanding of the unique historical circumstances or the contemporary plight of what it means to be black in America. It is not a stretch to assert that after engaging in the American educational system, African-Americans are better versed in the history of every other race than their own., there are few things that cause more anxiety than the realization that I am on the verge of entering a classroom full of African-American collegians that have no idea of the African-American experience. I literally have to brace myself for the experience. And what an experience it is.
Personally, there are few things that cause more anxiety than the realization that at the beginning of each semester, I will enter a classroom overflowing with African-American students who know little, if anything, about the black experience. I literally brace myself for the daunting experience.
I am confident that most would be shocked to learn that my students arrive in my classroom bereft of either an understanding or desire to engage the black experience. In fact, it is common for students to rebel against the reading of classic black texts such as Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart or Alex Haley’s classic monograph, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The alluded to displeasure is so significant with many students that they actually emit an audible groan with faced with the prospect of engaging the black experience.
Incredibly, I have had students pursuing a reliable escape route from dealing with the past experiences of Black America object to reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X on religious grounds.
Considering that such antics occur every semester, I am prepared to subdue them via a simple question that illuminates the cavernous holes in the vast majority of African-American students K – 12 educational experience. The question 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, “How Many of you have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X?” Rarely does more than one or two hands rise. I follow these initial queries with the following one. “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 one that follows the life of Black man in America who to this day is revered as one of the most significant figures of the twentieth-century?” My students never dispute this poignant observation.
Although I hate to admit it, it appears that the primary catalyst to my student’s resistance to engaging The Autobiography of Malcolm X or any other classic black text is that somewhere along their travels, they have learned to devalue the contributions of black writers and historical figures. If anything, they seek a refuge from the stigma associated with blackness, even if that soft landing spot causes them to ignore the harsh realities that they are facing on a daily basis. The alluded to desires communicates a deep-seated self-hatred. If they are not careful, African-Americans perspective of their people can closely mirror that of white supremacists.
Let’s be clear on this matter, I have no problem with students reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I consider the text to be significant enough to have visited the location where the story occurred. Hence, I will never refute the story as an indispensable part of Human history; however, I also recognize that such recognition and reverence is due African-Americans stories as well.
It is an understanding of the phenomenal impact of education on the mind that has led me to address this matter. When one considers that humans are social beings, meaning that we learn everything that we “know” through either experience or lessons gleaned from others, education sets the foundation for our values, priorities, and worldview. The fact that education sits at the center of our understanding, the influence of school teachers should never be de-emphasized.
If permitted, I would love to ask the committees and decision makers that champion the worth of Anne Frank’s story and dismiss 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 consider Anne Frank’s story of more valuable than Malcolm X’s?
- What impact do you think that a K – 12 educational experience 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?
The consequences of African-Americans not learning their history should be obvious — low self-esteem, an absence of knowledge of self, and being turned off from the discipline of history, if not the entire educational experience. Although often ignored, the truth of the matter is that black children are not the only population damaged when the African-American story is left out of the standard American History/Social Studies curriculum; it damages each child, regardless of race or ethnicity by enveloping them in an unnecessary ignorance. The absence of the black experience in the curriculums of American school systems causes the following issues.
- 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 desire to cease the never-ending racial animosity between American racial/ethnic groups that I call for those power brokers who select reading materials for American school children 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 black texts and authors, it is the only weapon that we have against pervasive racial animosity and angst in the new millennium.
Dr. James Thomas Jones III