The injustices are real, but so are the contributions
Several years ago, I remarked to a fellow teacher that I hoped a certain student would study science in college. This student learned the concepts so quickly that he was always a step ahead of the lesson. The way his science teacher responded broke my heart. She spoke gently, as if wanting to let me down easy: “These students aren’t going to college,” she said.
We taught at a middle school where the enrollment was over 90% African American. To be fair, I never heard this teacher speak in a negative way to the students about their futures. But I never heard her speak positively about their prospects, either. It was my first explicit encounter with the “hope gap,” which is created by adults, then transmitted to children.
It’s not that I was naive about the many challenges that faced our students on the road to college. Before teaching in special education, I worked for 17 years in college advising. I created a program for first-generation college students, and I was aware of the barriers to college. Yet, I had also witnessed many students overcome those barriers.
Sometimes, encouragement and information are just as important as material resources. A 2017 study showed that just a few sessions of helping middle school students articulate college goals improved outcomes over the long term, concluding that “the intervention increased African Americans’ probability of college enrollment 7–9 years later.”
What really broke my heart about my exchange with this teacher (who is retired now) was that she would have been a good person to communicate to her students that college was possible for them. In many ways, she was an excellent teacher: Her lessons were clear. Every day she included a hands-on activity. Students came back from high school just to visit her, and I knew she cared about them. So hearing her blanket dismissal was shocking. At that moment, I was stunned into silence. It’s an example of how problematic bias is: That someone could be caring on a personal level, could do things like purchase school supplies for her students, yet hold low expectations for their future.
The encounter made me redouble my efforts to speak with as many students as I could about their possible future pathways. I also became more determined to learn and share African American history whenever possible, because I believe ignorance causes at least part of the hope gap. In a 2017 paper, LaGarrett J. King noted that a study done for the National Museum of African American History and Culture found that:
“Only 1 to 2 lessons … is devoted to Black history in U.S. history classrooms.”
I wonder whether the science teacher would have been more optimistic about her students’ prospects if she knew that African Americans, while working during a time period that was even more hostile to their intellectual activity than the present day, obtained over 800 patents between 1865 and 1913, as recorded by Henry E. Baker in his 1913 book The Colored Inventor. These patents were for innovations in agriculture, medicine, transportation, technology, and many other areas. Or that it was an enslaved man, Onesimus, who saved Boston from a smallpox epidemic in 1721 . Harvard’s Science in the News (Infectious Disease edition) says that “Mather is believed to have first learned about inoculation from his West African slave Onesimus, writing, ‘he told me that he had undergone the operation which had given something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it, adding that was often used in West Africa.’”
I see main three reasons for the woeful lack of African American history in our schools: One, institutional racism means the topic is given scant coverage in state standards, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance. Two, it is difficult to teach something if you are just learning it yourself. Three, many teachers are overwhelmed at the thought of trying to explain 400 years of exploitation and unimaginable cruelty. Yet, the African American story is also one of enormous contributions and extraordinary resilience.
To be clear, we should always be cognizant of the crimes against humanity that were committed for the sake of American economic expansion. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. concludes from the the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade Database, that 12.5 million Africans were taken from their homes, of whom 10.7 million survived to land in the Americas and the Caribbean. As Smithsonian magazine reported in January, 2020, a new database “will offer vital details about the toll wrought on the enslaved.”
A Massive New Database Will Connect Billions of Historic Records to Tell the Full Story of American…
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Countless primary sources relate the horrors of slavery, as well as the oppression and lynchings of the segregation era. Yet, as Ijeoma Oluo says in her book So you want to talk about race:
“My blackness is a history of strength, beauty and creativity…Humans are resilient and creative beings, and out of a social construct created to brutalize and oppress, we’ve managed to create a lot of beauty.”
To a great extent, the foundation of the American economy was laid, and the fabric of American cultural life was woven, by African Americans. It’s also critically important to recognize that African American history didn’t start with slavery. As Gates illustrated with the PBS series Africa’s Great Civilizations, “Africa and Africans shaped not only their own rich civilizations, but also the wider world.”
Africa is not just the cradle of humanity, where humans first appeared, but also the site of many cultural developments. Just one example: The book Ethiopia: The Living History of Churches of an Ancient Kingdom notes that “The ancient Aksumite Kingdom, now a part of Ethiopia, was among the first in the world to adopt Christianity as the official state religion.”
In the realm of trade, no one has ever surpassed the wealth of Mansa Musa, the ruler of ancient Mali in western Africa. Mansa Musa made the city of Timbuktu a center of learning, and the library there still possesses “Timbuktu’s famous manuscripts, believed to number in the hundreds of thousands… date from the 14th to 16th centuries… Often written in Arabic but also some local languages, they cover areas such as medicine and astronomy, as well as poetry, literature and Islamic law…The city’s huge and priceless cultural heritage, a legacy of its medieval status as an African equivalent to Oxford or Cambridge, complete with bustling university, was little known in the outside world…”
Ruth D. Wilson noted in 1957 that European enslavers justified their actions by saying they were ‘saving’ pagan, uncivilized Africans. Yet the sophisticated knowledge of enslaved people contributed greatly to the prosperity of the United States. For example, by 1800 South Carolina had emerged as a leading producer of rice, and was one of the wealthiest agricultural areas in the world, according to Judith A. Carney. Her 1993 article “From Hands to Tutors: African Expertise in the South Carolina Rice Economy” documents the African knowledge of rice cultivation that led to this prosperity.
“The techniques of rice production were vested in the knowledge carried by many African people to the Americas, particularly those enslaved from Senegal to the Ivory Coast.”
Edward E. Baptist’s award-winning 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is a brilliant exposition that lays bare how slavery, far from being a pre-modern institution that was on the wane by the 1860s, became the cornerstone of modern American capitalism. It shaped our banking system, industry, and politics. Additionally, there were different phases of American enslavement related to geography and the rise of cotton’s importance:
“From the 1790s to the 1860s, enslavers moved 1 million people from the old slave states to the new. They went from making no cotton to speak of in 1790 to making almost 2 billion pounds of it in 1860. Stretching out beyond the slave South, the story encompassed not only Washington politicians and voters across the United States, but Connecticut factories, London banks…”
Few Americans know of the African American “Trail of Tears”
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The development of slavery in the United States shaped banking and credit markets. Baptist notes that by 1830, approximately one-third of the American economy was tied to the cotton produced by enslaved people. Slavery provided Wall Street with early profits, and there was a large slave market just two blocks away from the current location of the NY Stock Exchange. And as a 2019 BBC article “The Hidden Links Between Slavery and Wall Street” states, “By some estimates, New York received 40% of US cotton revenue through money its financial firms, shipping businesses and insurance companies earned.”
As a nation, we are deeply indebted not only for the labor of African Americans, but also for their skills and innovations. Much of what we call American culture is really African at its roots. Consider the work of food historian Michael Twitty, who has traced southern cuisine to enslaved cooks in antebellum times and further back, to Africa. Consider that vibrant expressions of Gullah Geechee (west African culture as sustained in the Southeast US) are found in food, music, art, religious practices, and community institutions from North Carolina, the northernmost point of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor, all the way down to Florida. Consider that African Americans were the driving creative force behind the American music forms of gospel, blues, jazz, and rock and roll, and rap.
“Reflecting both the hardships and triumphs black Americans have experienced in the United States, their music has also served to shape the national identity, profoundly influencing the lives of all Americans.”
(from “The History of African American Music” on encyclopedia.com)
African American influence isn’t just found in intangible cultural contributions. It was skilled African American craftspeople who created much of the built environment of the South, including plantation homes and the White House. As the title of a 2016 Smithsonian magazine article stated, “The White House Was, In Fact, Built by Slaves — Along with the Capitol and other iconic buildings in Washington, DC.” Long before African Americans were recognized as citizens, they literally built the enduring symbols of our democratic government, which are in turn arrayed in the impressive urban grid of Washington, DC that Benjamin Banneker helped to survey.
This payroll to enslavers for work done on the White House shows that the government hired enslaved people, many of them skilled craftsmen. Carpenters Ben, Daniel, and Peter were noted as enslaved by James Hoban. (National Archives and Records Administration)
In every major American conflict, starting with the Revolutionary War, African Americans fought and served (see the 2017 Minority Veterans Report). Yet, African Americans were often cheated of recognition and benefits, even after providing critical service during WW II.
A step towards economic justice: Right the wrongs done to African American veterans of WW II
One step we could take
Regarding education, even before the Civil War, African Americans sought schooling in a variety of ways, often necessarily clandestine. Yet there were many instances of educational attainment, even in the hostile antebellum environment. Crystal A. Degregory’s 2010 article “We Built Black Athens: How Black Determination Secured Black Education in Antebellum Nashville” tells the story of how “free and enslaved blacks in Nashville joined together to provide educational opportunities for black children…”
African American participation in schooling exploded after the Civil War. African Americans of all ages sought literacy and built schools, even before securing the basic necessities of life. As James D. Anderson notes in his seminal work The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935
“Despite what seemed like overwhelming opposition to their educational campaigns, the masses of Afro-Americans persisted in becoming literate. Their 95 percent illiteracy rate in 1860 had dropped to 70 percent in 1880 and would drop to 30 percent by 1910.”
This unrivaled gain in literacy over just five decades was a result of an intense campaign of basic literacy classes for adults and school building for children. Determined African American parents raised money to provide the schools that had been denied to them.
Nor did their drive and sacrifice for education stop at the primary school level. In a 2007 article in The Journal of Negro Education, “Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Honoring the Past, Engaging the Present, Touching the Future,” it is noted that “In the 25 years after the Civil War, approximately 100 institutions of higher learning were created to educate freed African Americans, primarily in the southern United States.” These historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) continue to play an important role in our nation as incubators of innovation and professional success.
While the Freedman’s Bureau and northern philanthropists provided seed money and logistical support for some schools, the incredible increase in literacy was largely the result of African American sacrifice for education. In a previous article “The Inversion,” I explained the system of double taxation, first described by Anderson, that was the model for most African American school construction. Southern African American families paid their taxes, then had to raise additional funds to build schools for their children.
The Inversion: African Americans and Education (Part One)
African Americans, particularly in North Carolina, sacrificed more to build schools than any other group. Despite this…
The more one learns about African American history, the more bizarre it appears that their experiences and contributions are not routinely folded into the curriculum. Despite efforts by many individual teachers, from the point of view of providing a comprehensive understanding of African American history, the words of Carter G. Woodson are almost as true of schools today as they were when he published them in 1933: “The oppressor… teaches the Negro that he has no worth-while past, that his race has done nothing significant since the beginning of time, and that there is no evidence that he will ever achieve anything great.” Perhaps a different quote is even more apt. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote “It belongs to human nature to hate those who you have injured.”
Only a pervasive, centuries-long campaign to diminish African American contributions could have created the current situation. Sadly, schools usually save mention of African American contributions for February, and limit discussion to a few familiar heroes. Instead of being inspired by Black History Month to seek a comprehensive understanding, as Woodson envisioned, we use it as an excuse to limit our efforts to one month of the year. This leaves students with the impression that after 400 years, and millions of lives lived, African Americans as a group have not made many notable contributions. As important as these individuals are, skipping from Crispus Attucks to Harriet Tubman to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. can easily leave students with the impression that the entire African American population has been punctuated by only a few exceptional individuals. Historically, nothing could be further from the truth.
To return to the classroom where we started, I have yet to see a metric that measures the cost of the lost human potential of one sixth grade child who is discouraged. Who does not see the path forward to pursue the education that would allow him to realize his potential. The cost is probably incalculable. It would have to take into account his lost productivity, the opportunity cost of lost innovation, the lost investment a college graduate makes in his community, the impact of unhealthful choices someone who has low income and little hope may make, and the sheer tragedy of unmet human potential. For the sake of our nation, I hope that this cultural moment gives us the resolve to change the systems that perpetuate the wealth gap, the health gap, the education gap, and the housing gap, and the hope gap.
To view my documentaries about historic African American schools and sharecropping, please see stackstories.com
Sources (These are in the order referenced)
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