Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Marie M. Daly, Garrett Morgan. Do you recognize each of these people? What about Marie Curie, Leonardo da Vinci, and Thomas Edison? Are the names from the second list a little more familiar? Each person listed has something in common–that they made massive contributions to the arts or science–but the white names are more instantly recognizable. Aside from current prominent figures, many people don’t know much about the contributions of black people beyond athletes and civil rights leaders. Jackie Robinson, Dr. King, and Frederick Douglas are commonly known figures. While they are important to learn about, there are other important spheres of influence that black people have contributed to: art, philosophy, science, politics, music, literature, medicine. Yet we don’t know about them unless we make substantial efforts to do so.
Sometimes this erasure is simply due to ignorance, and other times it is a deliberate act of racism. In schools, white history is taught as the norm. In the two U.S. History courses I was required to take (one in middle school and one in high school) I did not learn about many important historical figures with skin darker than my own. The assumption become that China and its people were not relevant until the 80’s, that Latino people haven’t done much to shape history, and that African Americans didn’t do much beyond trying to escape subjugation until recently. Of course, each of those statements is incorrect, but curriculum and textbook writers for broad topics in history compress what happened and focus on the events and eras they consider most important. Many of those who set up books and classes decide what is important largely based on what they were taught, continuing the cycle.
At the moment, black history is a independent research project. Events such as Black History Month are set up to combat that. At the college level, it is often available as an elective. But each class costs hundreds or sometimes even thousands of dollar, so many students don’t take these electives unless they do a good job of fulfilling core curriculum requirements. (This isn’t even taking account those who don’t go to university.) While most students have a little room for elective credits, the group who often has the least flexibility is often the one who needs it the most: education majors. Our future teachers, based on those I know, are unlikely to have much room for elective classes. One of the big reasons is that so many of them double major in education and the subject they want to teach, which leaves them with very little wiggle room.
This precedent of lacking diverse education at all levels comes from our nation’s racist history. The United States, a country which called itself “The Great American Melting Pot” due to its eclectic mix of ethnicities who came seeking prosperity or fleeing prosecution, did not have an ethnic studies program until 1969. My grandpa was 37 years old; he had already finished his medical degree and started a family. He is still alive and remembers the 60’s vividly. It was not very long ago.
As laws have changed and we have grown closer to equality, a mixture of leftover racism and laziness have prevented massive curriculum reform to include a more diverse history. It was (and is) easy for racists to insist that a widespread change to classes, textbooks, and state requirements would be too complicated, time-consuming, and costly. It would be those things, but so was setting up social security. If the government values something enough they will find time and resources.
A more diverse education is essential if we are to raise our youth without dangerous ideals about certain people being better than others. As I’ve said before, “Understanding how diverse people have contributed to our world is an essential part of equality. It is much harder to justify the oppression of a group if you see them as valuable.”
Advocate for more inclusive education. Take the time to go to your local library (or visit a reputable website) and learn a little more about topics you didn’t cover as a student. If you have children or young people in your life, take the time to inform them about the merits of learning about diverse groups of people and share what you know. The best way to implement change is by starting with yourself and those close to you.