Every year when Black History Month rolls around, I am reminded of how poorly we Americans teach the history of our country. If we taught it well, “Black history” would not be seen as a separate narrative or something to teach in a stand-alone unit. Rather, every American would have a deep, rich understanding of the central role of African Americans not only in our country’s history, but in its very DNA.
At Success Academy, we view Black history as simply American history, and we study it throughout the year. In elementary through high school, we make sure scholars explore history in a way that gives them a deep understanding that history is not a series of events led and narrated by white men, but is rather an ongoing and complex narrative of diverse experiences, perspectives, and voices.
In elementary school, we integrate history into our literacy curriculum — with carefully chosen texts, project-based learning, and “core knowledge” units. But starting in fifth grade — the first year of middle school — our scholars take three years of American history. The comprehensive and in-depth curriculum (available on the SA Ed Institute!) makes clear to our scholars that Black experiences and black voices are absolutely critical to this history.
When we study the Declaration of Independence, for example, we launch the class with a central question: “To what extent is the Declaration of Independence a call for liberty?” Scholars read several excerpts of the Declaration of Independence and engage in a lively discussion. Citing the words “all men are created equal” and the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” scholars almost infallibly make the argument that the document is indeed a resounding call for liberty.
But then the teacher asks them to read a section of the constitution that was ultimately removed because of resistance from southern states. In it, Thomas Jefferson blames King George for introducing slavery to the new world and cites it as an example of the tyranny inherent in English rule. They read contemporary correspondence between Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker, an African-American surveyor and naturalist, in which Banneker upbraids Jefferson for the hypocrisy inherent in the Declaration of Independence while slavery persisted. They also study a letter by Abigail Adams to her husband, John Adams, in which she exhorts him to include rights for women in the new government the founders are envisioning — an exhortation that ultimately proved fruitless.
With this new information, scholars’ perspective shifts. They see that even as the Declaration of Independence sets forth a noble vision of liberty, its vision left out many members of society. And they see that there were individuals who did not get to participate in crafting this document, but who recognized the discordance and raised their voices to demand liberty for every individual. Similarly, when we move into the post-Revolutionary period, scholars explore how the existence of slavery in southern states shaped the Constitution and the structure of our government, and they read Frederick Douglass’ penetrating commentary on the Constitution’s slavery clauses.
When scholars study the abolition movement, they learn how unlike politics — dominated by white, wealthy men — this grassroots movement allowed other voices to rise to prominence: the working-class John Brown, women like Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the great African-American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. When delving into the Reconstruction period, they study the African Americans demanding and winning voting rights, opening schools, running for political office, and governing as U.S. Senators. And they discover how the demand to placate powerful, white southern interests in order to peaceably reunite the war-torn nation eventually won out over the goal — pursued by many whites along with Black Americans — of establishing and protecting the rights and safety of African Americans in the South.
This is American history at its most dramatic and most germane. In moments great and small throughout this history, Black Americans were actively participating: pressing for alternate paths and making their ideas, opinions, and perspectives heard. Throughout the year, our scholars learn that all Americans, not just a particular subset, wove the rich tapestry of the United States, and they learn that in every historical epoch, Americans from many different backgrounds and perspectives were arguing and debating about the best way to progress toward the great ideals we espouse.
As our scholars awaken to this understanding, they embrace the most important lesson that history can teach: They themselves have a role to play in the shaping of history. By actively engaging in civic life and making their voices heard, they have the opportunity to help make our country’s present, future, and eventual history, come closer to fulfilling what they want their country to be for themselves, their families, and their communities.