It’s time to bring Black history into the mainstream of American education, says Suffolk University Trustee E. Macey Russell, who is advocating for a national movement that would transform a tame February curriculum addendum to a strong examination of the Black experience in America since 1619.
History lessons that address America’s fraught relationship with race tend to focus on slavery in the context of the founders’ debates over states’ rights, the civil war, and the civil rights movement. But American schools, with a curriculum largely determined by white educators, neglect to address signal events such as the post-Reconstruction massacres of Black citizens in Tulsa and elsewhere. Students don’t hear about the African American lives lost in 1927 when Mississippi River levees were dynamited to spare New Orleans from flooding, spurring the Great Migration to the North. The history books don’t address how discrimination in housing, employment, home and business loans, and health care have shaped a society in which the net worth of the average white family is nearly 10 times that of a Black family.
“Learning this history helps Black Americans understand their heritage and how they are connected to this country. We have been here for 400 years, and there is something wrong when folks who arrived 120 years ago feel more connected than Black Americans."
Russell, JD ’83, seeks federal legislation that would establish a commission to determine what type of Black history education would be appropriate for K through 12. He would name it the George Floyd Education Act.
Ideally the federal government would provide incentives for implementing an appropriate program; states and municipalities would make courses on racism in the United States and Black history part of the core curriculum; and colleges and universities would follow suit.
Russell and coauthor David Cavell make a compelling case for Black history education in “It's Time to Teach Black History to All Students,” published as a WGBH News commentary.
And in an era when the call has gone out to “do something,” Russell invites Suffolk alumni and other members of the University community to join him in advocating for Black History education.
A need for context
In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and others, protesters are standing up for the rights of Black Americans, yet many don’t quite understand how America came to this juncture, according to Russell.
The myth of a post-racial society ushered in with the election of President Barack Obama has died, and “the kids out marching, particularly the white kids, are confounded about what’s happened,” says Russell.
He believes that the antidote to this confusion is education that creates an understanding of the trajectory from slavery to institutional racism.
Russell notes that, among Black and Brown families, “a lot of our history was passed along orally from generation to generation, but none of it ever ended up in in our classrooms…. I don't think we can move forward until we have an opportunity to address this issue through education.”
A sense of belonging
Because young Black and Brown students are not taught their history, they often believe that they are alone and on their own, Russell says.
“Learning this history helps Black Americans understand their heritage and how they are connected to this country. We have been here for 400 years, and there is something wrong when folks who arrived 120 years ago feel more connected than Black Americans. Rarely do we stop and ask: Why is there a Negro National Anthem in this country? Why was the Negro Baseball league necessary? Why was it necessary to form a Negro National Bar Association and Medical Association?”
Empathy based on facts
Russell, a partner at Choate Hall & Stewart LLP, is deeply involved with encouraging diversity in the legal profession.
“I’ve learned from these experiences that you have to find trigger points that generate empathy in people, and that usually has to come from a baseline of facts and information.”
Going over facts and statistics and then discussing what can reasonably be inferred from that information helps bring people to a new understanding, he says.
“Until people begin to understand some of the facts of what happened in this country, it may be hard for them to understand why African-Americans in particular are in the spot they are today. It's not because we all check the box before we were born and said: I want to be poor. I want to be discriminated against on the basis of race. I want to have the worst possible public education. I want to be fearful of police, and I want to be discriminated against in housing and education. Nobody checks those boxes. But yet there's always been an undercurrent that we're contributing.”
Russell’s commitment to Black history education stems in part from his own experiences learning about the history of other races within the United States: that a pre-Columbian population of 10 million or more Native Americans was decimated, leaving only 6 million scattered on reservations; that Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II, even as some of their sons and daughters joined the war effort; that much of the Southwest was once part of Mexico.
“There are a lot of things that we don't understand partly because we just were never exposed to them,” says Russell, who says Germany provides an example of educating students about an era in its history. “Germany requires all high school students to study Nazism and the Holocaust, and we should follow Germany’s lead as a way to heal.”
He says that America needs to look at diversity and inclusion through a different lens and ask about the transfer of power and wealth, and learning about Black history is a step in that direction.
Says Russell: “If the country gets to the point where learning about Black history and racism in the U.S. becomes part of our daily dialogue in the schools, that will trickle into the minds of the parents, into the neighborhoods, and into their communities. And I think that would be a good thing.”
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