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Students and faculty reflect on erasure of Black history in education

A mural of Elizabeth Cotten at 111 North Merritt Mill Road in Carrboro on Feb. 11, 2021

UNC junior Iyana Jones-Reese recalls sharing the light-hearted stories she learned about slavery in school with her grandfather. He was struck by how the nature of slavery was watered-down and sugarcoated by her teacher.

“I remember when I was a kid my grandfather was talking to me about slavery and I was like, ‘No, no, no, there were some slave masters that treated their slaves nicely, we talked about it in class,’" she said. "It’s one of those things where like you're hearing all of these different sides.”

Her grandfather then encouraged Jones-Reese to learn the truth of her history.

As many students are studying and celebrating Black historical figures and movements during Black History Month, they are continuously learning about historical elements that were not discussed in school. 

Mike Wax, a junior studying biology, said he had an idea of the erasure of Black history in high school, but it wasn’t until he got to college when he realized just how much of his history wasn’t taught to him. He felt it was a call to action to educate himself.

“I was shocked that I had missed so much of my history, of Black history, and I wanted to learn more,” Wax said. “I tried to put myself in these classes and any spaces where I could learn about more Black history, and I took it upon myself to do like my own readings about it.”

He said this exclusion of Black history in school lesson plans could lead to the erasure of this history altogether.

“There's so much Black history that they don't teach in schools, and I think that as time progresses smaller amounts of people are going to know about this history, and it’s possible that it could get erased,” Wax said.

Recently, a charter school in Utah attempted to do just that. Maria Montessori Academy made the decision to allow parents to opt their children out of a Black History Month curriculum. Although this decision was reversed, the initial proposal reflected how quickly this history could be erased.

Wax believes that the academic curriculum is to blame for this lack of Black representation in history lessons.

“I think the problem is in the infrastructure of the curriculum in school,” Wax said. “They focus too much on the construction of America and not on the histories and cultures of its people.”

Glenn Hinson, an anthropology professor at UNC, said that to determine why Black history is being selectively taught, people have to figure out who is attempting to control the narrative.

“The question that I always ask is who is invested in the public, not knowing the other stories,” Hinson said. “When I think about the way that African American history is cramped and restricted to a few figures and those figures, in turn, are often sanitized, they’re reduced to a few selected stories to represent their lives.”

Hinson said when Black history is taught, it is often sugarcoated and one-sided.

“Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered for the speech on the National Mall, but he's not remembered for his strident opposition to the Vietnamese war and he's not remembered for a lot of the organizing that he did,” Hinson said.

Hinson said this is done to avoid facing the truth about the systems in America.

“I think it's easier to compress and to tell the simple single story, rather than the complicated story that demands that we look at bigger systemic structures,” he said.

Jones-Reese thinks this history can be uncovered by listening to direct stories from the Black community.

“I think the best thing that we can do right now is talk to people who experienced that history,” Jones-Reese said. “I love talking with my grandparents about what life was like in the Civil Rights Movement.”

She also thinks that sharing facts on social media will be important in spreading well-rounded stories about Black history.

“There are so many people who are dedicating their lives to getting this out to people, especially to young people in a way that's easy to digest,” Jones-Reese said. “They're now turning to TikTok, Instagram and Twitter to teach people.”

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Wax is hopeful that this method of teaching through social media will motivate a new generation to learn more.

“I think that the excitement of social media and posting about Black history will influence the youth and young adults to get more into it,” he said.

Wax said spreading this knowledge is important and will be beneficial in the future.

“I think it's important for us to know our history, so we can better prepare for our future,” he said.