The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

African Americans say the teaching of Black history is under threat

Jamarah Amani, second from right, with three of her children in North Miami Beach, Fla. (Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post)

Jamarah Amani insists that her four children, ages 8 to 21, learn Black history.

“There’s not very much incorporated into public school education, which is why I have done a combination of home schooling and public schools over the years,” said Amani, 41, a Miami-area midwife.

Now, she believes, a bill before Florida legislators — one that bars material causing students “discomfort,” “guilt” or “anguish” — would limit the accurate teaching of Black American history in schools. “If this law passes, kids won’t be able to see themselves reflected at all within their own education,” she said.

This year, a cloud hangs over Black History Month. New laws or directives in at least 13 states restrict what can be taught and how it can be discussed. Black teachers of history and social studies feel everything they say or do is under a microscope; many are playing it safe and pulling back. And Black parents and students — who want more, not less, Black history — are alarmed that schools in so many states are skirting the breadth of the Black American experience.

For them, it’s not just Black History Month that’s endangered. It’s Black history itself.

New critical race theory laws have teachers scared, confused and self-censoring

“To just give children some sanitized, watered-down version of history that doesn’t address the historical context and the truth doesn’t work,” said Amani, who is also executive director of the Southern Birth Justice Network, which advocates for Black maternal health. That’s “not at all what I want for my children,” she said.

In many parts of the country, Black educators say they have to be extra careful, concerned that material they present will make students or their parents uncomfortable or that a colleague or community member will be offended. They worry that assigning the wrong book or having an out-of-context comment captured on video could land them in hot water — or out of a job.

Della Cayson, who is Black, teaches American and African American history in a majority-White public high school not far from Atlanta. She has stopped organizing events for Black History Month in recent years, because she feels she hasn’t had the support she needs from administrators when parents or colleagues criticize her. Cayson said another Black teacher at the school was told to stop teaching “The Hate U Give,” an award-winning novel by Angie Thomas that in part depicts the police killing of a Black teen and its aftermath.

Last year, as part of a professional development effort, faculty members were assigned to read “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?,” a book that explores the psychology of racism and offers a framework for talking about race. Cayson said the effort fell apart when many teachers didn’t read the book and minority teachers were offended by comments on the book sent in by their White colleagues.

Republican Georgia legislators are seeking to pass a bill that would limit how educators teach about racism and history. It says Americans should be allowed “an aspirational and inspirational take on America’s history, debunking the misguided argument that the present-day problems of black Americans are caused by the injustices of past failures, such as slavery.” And earlier this year Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) vowed to “protect our students from divisive ideologies like critical race theory that pits kids against each other.”

But educators and others say critical race theory, a decades-old legal framework that says racism is systemic in the United States, isn’t taught in schools, and they’ve argued that attempts to ban it in Georgia and elsewhere are simply intended to get rid of diversity initiatives in teaching and restrict lessons that explore America’s darker history.

The political battle, Cayson said, is being felt in the classroom.

“You do have a lot of teachers who are fearful of what’s going on,” Cayson said, adding, “I never imagined that we would be getting back to censorship in this country, and it’s frustrating to me.”

How slavery is taught in America's schools

The impact of similar legislation is affecting history teachers across the country. Chanda Robinson, a South Carolina educator and a member of the National Council for the Social Studies board, said history and social studies teachers are worried that anything they might say could get them in trouble, because many of the new laws and guidelines are so vague. She has told teachers to teach to the state standard and to ensure that their lesson plans are district-approved.

Angela Burley, a history teacher in Dallas, said that the mood is “solemn” for Black history and social studies teachers in Texas. She thinks many of them are uncomfortable teaching in schools that are not predominantly Black, she said, because of the scrutiny they are facing.

“I’m not going to chance and gamble my certification to teach somewhere where I have to be worried about every single word that comes out of my mouth,” Burley said.

Burley, who has been teaching for 22 years, moved in 2020 from a high school where she was one of two Black teachers to a middle school where most of the faculty is Black. She describes the new environment as a “soothing balm” in which she’s allowed to teach knowing she has the support of her colleagues and administration.

Rodney D. Pierce, a middle school teacher in North Carolina, traces the current attacks on teaching to a comment President Donald Trump made in 2020 that public schools teach kids to “hate their own country.”

“I think that raised the scrutiny on teachers, you know, put more of a microscope on us, particularly social studies or history teachers, or particularly those of us who are African American who, like myself, may have a reputation for being a Black history teacher who incorporates Black history into their content,” Pierce said.

But even with the added scrutiny, Pierce said he won’t shy away from teaching a history of America that includes what Black Americans have had to endure, as well as how they’ve advocated for themselves and succeeded against the odds.

“People of African descent, African American people, we have a very complicated history in this country,” he said. “And I think when we don’t teach a true and candid history of African American people in the United States, then we run the risk of confirming myths, tropes and stereotypes.”

Students, too, are voicing their frustrations with what they see is being endangered by proposed legislation and guidance.

Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions

Jade Thompson, 16, attends Florida Virtual School, the state’s online option. The curriculum is the same as the curriculum at in-person schools. She said students can handle diversity and the critical thinking she believes legislators are trying to ban. When she was still attending in-school classes, Thompson said, students of different races would discuss the tough issues outside the classroom, and nobody’s feelings were hurt.

“Especially when it comes to specifics with slavery and stuff like that, we would all talk about the underlying causes and break it down during lunch or after school,” she said. “We’d be like, ‘How did this happen?’ And it would really be like an intellectual conversation. ... It wasn’t like: ‘Oh my God, Becca. How could your family do this? This is your fault.’ Nobody was trying to make people feel guilty about history. We were just trying to understand and figure things out.”

The eagerness of students to learn and discuss difficult history has long been apparent to Myron Curtis, a teacher and the head football coach at Broad Run High School in Loudoun County, Va. When the school held its curriculum day in early February to allow students to sample courses, Curtis’s African history and diaspora classroom was full — three separate times.

Interest in the elective was enthusiastic and crossed racial and ethnic lines, said Curtis, who is Black and has been teaching for 11 years.

“It’s focused on history from different perspectives, and we haven’t gotten that,” Curtis said. “They absolutely want this content.”

But Curtis also knows there has been blowback across the country against history courses, especially Black history courses, that teach America’s failures and inequities alongside its achievements. His school district of 81,000 students landed at the center of those debates when a parent group targeted Loudoun schools for initiatives that included bias training for teachers and a public apology for segregation.

The parents, through a group called Fight for Schools, alleged that the school district’s efforts to address a history of racism are evidence that it is implementing critical race theory. Loudoun schools deny those accusations.

Curtis said he has the strong support of his school administration, but he half-joked with the students on curriculum day that they should take his class because it could end up being banned at some point.

“It’d be kind of cool to say you took a banned course,” he told them.

Even in states where there hasn’t been as much pushback, Black teachers are angry about what they see as retrenchment when it comes to exploring essential issues of racism and equity in American history. And they think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what is and isn’t taught by teachers in class.

“Right now there’s so much influence from the outside about what happens in classrooms,” said Krystal Davis, a Black high school teacher in a suburban Chicago district. “What teachers do every day, they don’t get it. They really think that we’re out there teaching kids like: ‘White people were bad. Black people are great. And White people mistreated Black people forever.’ ... They really think that if you say ‘I’m teaching Black history,’ then that wipes out all of their history.”

For Charice Rosser, a parent of a middle school student in rural North Carolina, the push in some states for schools to avoid teaching about anything other than American exceptionalism is yet one more snub for Black Americans.

“Everybody’s truth has been told, and ours has just been hushed,” Rosser said. She likened ignoring the modern-day effects of slavery and racism to ignoring dark family secrets.

“This may sound a little graphic, but it’s sort of like having a family molester in the family and you don’t say anything,” she said, “because you don’t know how people are going to respond.”

By teaching the full scope of Black American history, including successes and accomplishments but also slavery, Jim Crow and ongoing racism, all students will benefit from a better grasp of how we got to where we are, she said.

“Can we acknowledge the fact that the people that are descendants of this situation are still being impacted?” she said. “What we can we do as a noble and humane thing in society is to at least create stability for the next generation.”