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Why everyone should be concerned about the miseducation of Black history

February 1, 2022, 7:41 PM UTC

Black History Month started as a single week with big mission.  

Negro History Week was launched on February 7, 1926, as an attempt to counter the “indoctrination” of Black students in public schools with some fundamental truths about Black lives. “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” wrote historian Carter G. Woodson, Negro History Week’s founder. The indoctrination, he believed, was designed to erase the contributions of Black excellence in order to keep people small. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

Negro History Week was designed to reacquaint Black people with themselves, and Woodson aimed to be part of that history. 

He was the only child of formerly enslaved parents to have ever earned a PhD in the U.S.—from Howard University, of course. In 1915, he co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life, which currently operates as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). But it was Woodson’s seminal book, The Mis-Education of the Negropublished in 1933, which helped codify the battle for the historical record which you see playing out in the book-banning hysteria that is sweeping the nation today.

But Black excellence bloomed even in toxic soil. 

Imani Perry, educator, historian and author of  South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, says the disappointment of the Jim Crow era became the foundation of Black intellectual life. “What is remarkable about that time is that Black people got to work despite the devastation,” she tells author Rebecca Carroll in this must-read interview. “People were building organizations and networks, writing books and developing social theory, building schools, and churches at every turn. And so, even when society shut the door to opportunity and treated Black people with horrible brutality, they kept dreaming, doing, and creating.”

Black History Month has only grown since it was founded, and to some degree has become a global conversation necessitated by colonialism, forced migration, and the routine violence of white supremacy. “Black History Month is rooted in a tradition of Black people writing themselves into history in ways that reject the logic of white supremacy and give a more expansive reach to the story of Black life both in this country and globally,” says Perry.

But history is well and truly being made today, and not the uplifting kind. 

Howard University and other HBCUs are enduring bomb threats that are not slowing downNeo-Nazis are marching again, this time in Florida. Educators across the country are being forced to explain inclusive curriculum to angry white parentsor worse.  And legislatures across the U.S. are effectively tossing “critical race theory” fears into communities like cultural grenades. 

But despite the devastation, work is being done. Again.

If Woodson were alive, I would ask him where he thought Black History Month should go from here. After all, it can only achieve its intended effect if everyone, including white students, are informed by it, too. 

To that end, he once called for a great re-framing. “It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week,” he said. “We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in History. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hatred and religious prejudice.”

And don’t sleep on what’s happening right now in schools, he might say. It’s history on auto-repeat.

In this quote from Mis-Education, he asked Black people of his era to stand up in spite their understandable fear. But he also identified the white impulse to police what was taught. ″African Americans themselves in certain parts join with Euro-Americans, to keep out of school, teachers who may be bold enough to teach the truth as it is,” he wrote. “They usually say the races here are getting along amicably now, and we do not want these peaceful relationships disturbed by teaching of new political thought. What they mean to say with respect to the peaceful relation of the races, then, is that the African-Americans have been terrorized to the extent that they are afraid even to discuss political matters publicly.”

Let the voices become a chorus this month.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

Let's also make it a happy new year

February 1 is also the Lunar New Year, which is known by many as Chinese New Year, Vietnam's Tết Nguyên Đán or South Korea's Seollal. In pre-COVID times it typically kicked off the largest annual human migration, as people from a variety of Asian cultures traveled to see their families for food-rich, traditional celebrations. It has also been an important opportunity for Asian immigrants across the global diaspora to reconnect with their roots and history.

But this year, the celebration was preceded by a protest that was held simultaneously in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco to decry the rising violence and discrimination experienced by Asian communities in the U.S and beyond. The Asian Justice Rally was held on the one-year anniversary of the death of 84-year old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thailand-born grandfather who was viciously attacked and killed during his daily walk in his San Francisco neighborhood. “At the very core, it’s about acknowledging [that] hate crimes happen to Asian Americans,” tech CEO and activist Justin Zhu told KGO. “We will not be silent about the hate crimes against us.”

While there are many supporters behind these efforts, I draw your attention to Stand With Asian Americans or SWAA, a new alliance of business leaders who are planning to use their collective clout to increase awareness of the hate crimes facing the broader Asian community, and explore the kinds of solutions that make for safer neighborhoods and more equitable workforces.

In a recent open letter, the group pledges some $10 million over the next year to fund interventions like legal support for those harmed by hate crimes, and research into the causes of anti-AAPI racism. Among the signatories are impressive list of AAPI executives, founders and allies, including Eric Yuan, CEO and founder at Zoom; Steve Chen, cofounder at YouTube; Sundar Pichai, CEO at Alphabet Inc.;  Jerry Yang, cofounder of Yahoo!, Debby Soo, CEO at OpenTable; Angela Hwang, Group President, Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group at Pfizer; and Audrey Choi, Chief Sustainability Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, and CEO of the Institute for Sustainable Investing at Morgan Stanley.

I’ll be digging more into their work and interventions in future reporting, but I’ll give SWAA the last word here:

To ensure representation, we commit to reporting out on diversity of all groups and to redefine Asian Americans as a group worth representation at all levels of the organization.

 As Asian American community activist Grace Lee Boggs said: "You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it."

 We ask that you join us in ending discrimination and violence against the Asian community and all marginalized communities. Enough is enough. Stand with us.

On Background

TOMORROW: How to talk to your boss about race Y-Vonne Hutchison is one of my favorite thinkers on race and equity, an early raceAhead supporter, and the the CEO and founder of ReadySet, a diversity and inclusion training firm. Her new book, How to Talk To Your Boss About Race, promised to build on years of work in the field, helping employees have effective conversations with powerful leaders and live to make a difference. The TechEquity Collaborative is hosting a free webinar with Hutchinson on Feb 2, 2022 at noon Pacific Time. Y-Vonne is a treasure, please share widely.

Mood board

At age 6, Ruby Nell Bridges was the first African American child to attend William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans after Federal courts ordered the desegregation of public schools. She's 67 now. Chances are she's as old as your parents, if not you. Would you be proud today of how y'all would have treated her as kids back then?
Bettmann/Getty Images

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