Black history is more than slavery, says Oberlin High School history teacher Kurt Russell.
Yet the study of African-Americans has generally centered on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and a handful of prominent figures. State guidelines make for a somewhat sanitized telling of their story, said Russell.
Some topics must be left out due to limited teaching time. Many minority groups are omitted from the conversation, he said.
Minorities are covered in the high school’s world history course but it’s not a mandatory class. Often, minority groups are never celebrated, but are mentioned only when discussing discrimination or hardships they’ve faced, Russell said.
Teaching history from a Euro-centric point of view is problematic, he said.
To fill in the gaps, Russell encourages students to take his African-American history elective, which is taught from an Afro-centric perspective.
Study begins around the 1400s and ends in the 1990s. In Friday seminars, students pore over newspaper clippings or videos from present day to learn about the Black Lives Matter movement and current injustice and racial tension.
When students are well-grounded in the issues of the past, they are better able to process the issues of the present, Russell said.
“When you think of black people in this country, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?” he asked on the first day of class. Almost everyone said slavery.
“What individuals come to mind?” he asked. The answers: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
People are limited in knowledge of black achievement in this country, Russell said, and that’s why we need to celebrate Black History Month each February.
“It is more than just the iconic figures. What about the underdogs?” he asked, listing off people whose voices and actions were just as powerful as the boldfaced icons of the civil rights movement.
Fannie Lou Hamer fought for the right to vote, encouraging and recruiting people in her native Mississippi and all throughout the South. Her activism got her arrested and thrown in the Montgomery County Jail, where she and her comrades were viciously beaten.
Katherine Johnson was a NASA mathematician who helped put John Glenn into orbit.
Benjamin Banneker is most famous for designing the nation’s capital after being appointed by then-president George Washington in 1791. He also worked most of his life to disprove the notion that black people were by their very nature inferior to white people; he published a series of almanacs that made him famous around the world.
Ralph Abernathy collaborated with King to create the Montgomery Improvement Association, which led to the Montgomery bus boycott.
“We need to make people aware now more than ever in this political climate that we are in. We need to be reminded that other people made some great contributions to this society,” Russell said.
African-Americans, along with Puerto Rican, Asian, Native American, and female students, all sense the absence of their cultural identities in textbooks, he said. But by creating more inclusive materials, a richer picture of history can emerge.
People need to see themselves in order to feel appreciated, Russell said.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.
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