During my nearly two decades of working as an African-American Studies Professor, I have learned myriad lessons regarding the educational process and its impact upon the minds, imagination, aspirations, and psyche of Black people; one of the most obvious and far-reaching lessons is found in the unfortunate reality that African-Americans are bereft of any understanding of their history. Although many outside of our community will protest this fact, the unfortunate reality is that the typical African-American is better versed in the history of other races than his own; engagement in the K-16 American educational institutions and its curriculum ensure the continuation of this reality.
It is this reality that forces me to brace myself for the first day of the semester; I already know that it will be a day that a new class of students will invariably reveal both their ignorance of and non-desire to engage African-American History. Considering that I am currently employed at a Historically Black University, one would expect my students to be excited at the prospect of reading Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart or Alex Haley’s classic monograph, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Unfortunately, you would be disappointed as students express their resistance to both tomes via a groan of disapproval.
Students resistance to reading African-American literature often reaches absurd levels. For example, it is not unusual for a student to assume the persona of a modern-day Simon Cyrene, the figure who carried Jesus’ cross for him, who foolishly challenges my selection of The Autobiography of Malcolm X by relating that he refuses to read a book about a ‘Black Moslem’; a tactic that I guess he thinks will earn him a much needed crown when he reaches Heaven.
Considering that such antics are repeated every semester, I am prepared to address them via a simple question that illuminates the paucity of their prior educational experience, particularly as it deals with their exposure to African-American authors, history, and literature. The question I repeatedly pose is a relatively mundane one of, “How many of you have read The Diary of Anne Frank?” Invariably, every hand in the cavernous auditorium 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 a Black man in America who to this day is revered by your people?” After such a flurry, nary a word of protest is uttered.
I take this momentary pause to re-engage the reincarnated Simon Cyrene, who invariably behaves as if my selection of The Autobiography of Malcolm X is part of a larger plan to proselytize and put my Christian audience on the highway to hell; I ask this idiot if he has read Anne Frank’s story. He always answers affirmatively. I then query, “So I am to take it that you are Jewish?” Driving home the absurdity of his protestation of why he would not engage Malcolm’s story, I then explain to the class that it is not Malcolm X’s religious background that he has a problem with, if it were, he would likewise have protested reading a text revolving around a Jewish girl; truthfully, the primary catalyst to my students resistance to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X is that they have learned to loathe African-Americans. Closely associated with feelings that can be best termed self-hatred is an often overlooked implicit question of ‘what have black people ever contributed to society?’ Although it is often not commented upon, it is possible for African-Americans to hate themselves with the zeal of a Ku Klux Klan member. In fact, the appearance of such bias is predictable considering that both populations have similar limited exposure to African-American historical contributions and contemporary worth.
I have learned that there are certain statements that must be forthrightly stated when discussing matters such as this, so I am publicly stating that I have no problem with students reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I personally consider her story to be significant enough to have visited the location where it was constructed. Hence, you will never find me refuting that Anne Frank’s story is an indispensable part of Human history; however, I am educated enough to recognize that such recognition is due to African-Americans stories, particularly The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as well.
The genesis to my being unsettled by this matter emanates from my understanding of education’s impact upon the human psyche. Considering that humans are social beings, meaning that we learn everything that we “know”, or at least think that we know, through either personal experience or the lessons of others, our entire reality is determined by what we are taught and what we experience. Hence, decisions regarding the type of curriculum we “educate” our children with should never be taken lightly. The alluded to curriculum informs our very existence.
Unfortunately, those who make decisions regarding K-12 curricular offerings are products of a school system that has historically marginalized the historical, cultural, and spiritual contributions of people of color; so it is not surprising that they continue this unfortunate tradition when crafting “educational guidelines” and “standardized tests”. If permitted, I would love to ask the decision makers that determine the worth of The Diary of Anne Frank and the worthlessness of The Autobiography of Malcolm X the following questions.
A. What is your rationale for including The Diary of Anne Frank on the must read list and not The Autobiography of Malcolm X?
B. Why do you think that Anne Frank’s story is more valuable than Malcolm X’s?
C. 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?
D. What does it mean for school children, regardless of race/ethnicity when districts fail to include any classic stories that center upon African-Americans or the African-American experience on their must read list?
The consequences of African-American children not being exposed to any form of their own history or culture in America’s educational institutions is well known, often omitted in such discussions is the reality that such grievous curricular omissions seriously damages the worldview of students of every race/ethnicity in the following ways.
A. It allows for the development of woeful ignorance in regards to African- Americans and their historical experience.
B. It gives the impression that persons of African descent have never contributed anything to society; thereby, allowing for racism and racist sentiments to gestate, if not spread like wildfire.
C. It releases an “educated” populace into the world without even a limited understanding of the African-American experience, an occurrence that severely curtails any opportunity for a closing of the American racial divide.
Considering the repetitive nature of public proclamations that this nation is now in a “post-racial” period, it is extremely important that racial matters be re-examined; or we as a nation run the risk of burying a living and breathing entity that is still impacting us on a daily basis. If this nation is honestly seeking to address the seemingly never ending domestic racial animosity, the inclusion of classic African-American texts would go a long way toward healing the racial divide. Tomes such as the following should be read by every American, regardless of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation: Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe) The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), Black Boy (Richard Wright), The Third Life of Grange Copeland (Alice Walker), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Alex Haley), Some Soul to Keep (J. California Cooper), Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,) The Simple Stories (Langston Hughes), Up From Slavery (Booker T. Washington), The Souls of Black Folk (W.E.B. DuBois), Go Tell It On The Mountain or The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin).
It is imperative that school children of every hue be exposed to a wide array of historical texts and expressions of humanity. History dictates that an investment in education is one of the greatest investments any nation, including America, could ever make. So, if this nation is serious about addressing its well-documented pattern of racial animosity between groups it must significantly alter the intellectual diet that has been woefully deficient in regards to acknowledging racial issues. A significant step toward addressing the nation’s failure to deal with the ever-present Race issue would be to infuse the intellectual diet with texts from myriad races, groups, and perspectives. History 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 truly the only weapon that we have against racial animosity shadowing this nation through the new millennium.