I grew up in and attended school in rural Southeast Arkansas in the ’80s and ’90s. Overall, I had a great educational experience, but a third-grade experience changed my life forever.
My third-grade teacher asked the class to open our textbooks. I turned to the page she asked us to, and the topic was Black history. To my surprise, on the page was a small, black and white pencil drawing of scantily dressed Black people who were supposed to be slaves. The extent of our Black history discussion was slavery. I felt upset and embarrassed because I already knew that Black history included more than slavery.
I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where we celebrate Black history. By the third grade, I’d already learned about Richard and Sarah Allen, I’d belted out “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and I’d already memorized “I, Too” by Langston Hughes thanks to church leaders.
In addition to my church lessons, my parents taught my sister, brother, and me about Black history. Our family even had a set of The International Library of Negro Life and History encyclopedias that we regularly read. Thankfully, my parents gifted these encyclopedias to me, and I still read them.
What I learned that day in that third-grade class was contradictory to what I’d already learned about Black history. I already knew that Black history was much more robust than slavery. Unfortunately, others in my class might not have had the same experiences as me, and the lesson that day was all they had a chance to learn about Black history. For me, this experience emphasized the limitations of the history curriculum, the importance of teaching Black history beyond slavery, and the importance of seeking knowledge beyond the school building.
Now, Arkansas legislators are proposing regressive legislation that, among other things, would prohibit public colleges and grade schools from teaching Black history in the state. According to Arkansas HB1218, if Arkansas schools teach Black history, they will lose public funding.
While this bill is ludicrous, it is not surprising. For years, history lessons in schools have purposely excluded Black history. In Arkansas specifically, some of the most significant events in Black history happened. The desegregation of Central High School and the brave Little Rock Nine, the Elaine Massacre, the Mosaic Templars, and even the Back to Africa Movement are essential parts of Arkansas history. I never learned any of this history in school. Unfortunately, the supporters of this proposed legislation believe that learning about this history is unnecessary and requires financial punishment if schools teach this history. If this bill passes, there will be a continued, purposeful omission of Black history curricula.
In addition to HB1218, these same legislators are proposing HB1231 that prohibits the teaching of the 1619 Project. When the 1619 Project was released, I bought numerous copies and mailed them to family and friends around the United States because of the significance of this project. This proposed legislation is short-sited and is another attempt to deny students the ability to learn the history that our schools and our society often ignore. These legislators believe that if one dares to teach the 1619 report in a public school setting, the state should withhold funding.
History is more significant and complex than a single story and a single perspective. I learned this lesson at eight years old. Any legislator who proposes not teaching Black history is committing public service malpractice. These proposed bills are unpatriotic, selfish, and do nothing to promote learning. I hope these bills don’t make it out of the Education Committee. However, if the legislation passes, lawsuits will follow, and the legacy of fighting for educational rights continue. When we ignore history, we repeat it.