I read a story recently that broke my heart. A British woman was badgered with questions about her heritage by a Buckingham Palace aide. The story reminded me of the sad presence of racism in society, and the importance of telling true heritage stories.
Two years ago this month, the State of Connecticut took a bold step when it included the teaching of Black and Latino studies in the curriculum. More noble is the fact that Connecticut was the first state in the country to roll this out.
In a statement I made after the killing of George Floyd, I highlighted the necessity of teaching actual Black history devoid of stories of slavery. You see, as an African, I have known my heritage my whole life. My ancestral village lies in the southeast of Nigeria, in Western Africa — bordered to the south by the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. The north of Africa is separated from Europe by the Straits of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea. Africa is indeed a continent (not a country.) But more than understanding the geographical location of my country is my knowledge of where my forefathers came from.
Sadly, over 400 years ago, the opportunity to live in Africa and to identify their heritage was stolen from African Americans. Their entire histories were re-written due to no fault of theirs. What followed was extreme racism that has remained present, and the perpetual erasure of Black history that has kept racism alive, in my opinion.
Is it possible that if you knew for a fact that the Black girl who sat beside you in math class in high school was the descendant of the King of the Malian empire — the richest man in recorded history — that maybe you would have perceived her differently? Is it possible also that if you knew entire societies existed in Africa pre-slavery, and pre-colonization, maybe your understanding of who Blacks are will be altered?
I recently worked on a year-long project that required research on Africa. Quite unfortunately, the resources available did very little justice to the continent highlighting the ineptitude of media coverage of Africa. If I had not lived in Africa myself, I would have shuddered at the state of the continent, thanks to the imagery and language used to describe the various countries. This injustice to the education of generations hopefully is seeing an end with the new Black and Latino studies in our schools. Granted, countries in Africa are in strife with war and economic instability, but that should not take away from the value of the diversity and culture of the various peoples.
In honor of Human Rights Day — Dec. 10 — I communicated with the director of social studies for Hamden public schools, Jennifer Vienneau, regarding responses they have received from families and students enrolled in the Black and Latino Studies course.
“I have only heard positive things,” she said. “[Here are] some comments from students, gathered for a Board presentation last year: “I enjoyed having discussions and being exposed to different perspectives on Black & PR/Latino history;” “I’m learning things I haven’t heard before;” “Love having a class that is reflective of my culture & history.” These comments are reflective of the feedback we are seeing across the state.”
When I asked her what her reflections are regarding the course, she responded: “Even without state legislation, we had begun reviewing the curriculum to see where we could include more experiences of various groups of people, beyond what the textbook provides. Additionally, we want to ensure that stories are presented in an accurate and appropriate manner, and that people are not seen as ‘sidebars’ to events in history. Hamden High piloted the course last year, prior to the legislation mandating we offer it,” she continued.
In the past Black history was taught differently in Connecticut schools, but with this inclusion, change has come.
“The course follows the state-mandated curriculum,” said Vienneau. “All teachers across the state are trained at workshops led by the SDE and SERC. The information is often new to teachers, so it is important that they have a firm grasp of the content before leading students through it. The material takes students through events and people’s experiences in a much deeper way than a typical survey U.S. History course can provide, simply due to time,” she said.
Connecticut being the first state to do this is “commendable,” she said. “…and the best part is that there is state-sponsored support to help districts enact this legislation.”
“I also think that many of these topics that are mentioned in the course should find their way into general U.S. History survey courses. With the new Social Studies Standards for Connecticut coming out next year, I think we will find opportunities to introduce more students to these important missing pieces of our history, even if they cannot take the elective course,” she said.
As with most pilot programs, there is hope that the course material will be improved over time, but this is a welcome start.
“The curriculum is so involved that it is hard to complete with fidelity, even with a year-long course. Continued teacher workshops and student feedback on the content will help teachers prioritize the concepts that need more or less time,” Vienneau concluded.
Just as we honor human rights this month, I celebrate what looks like the beginning of the end of racism — and hope other states in America will follow suit.
Weruché George is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.