In 1777, Vermont became the first colony to abolish slavery, and the state generally prides itself on this history. But as I have learned from preparing teachers there to teach Black history, that does not mean the state is a radical example of Black liberation and activism.
Before developing and now teaching a graduate-level African American history course intended for teachers at a small liberal arts college in Vermont, I originally made the false assumption that the Northeast could be relied on as a corridor of anti-racist and abolitionist education. I was making the mistake that Bettina Love refers to as the “assumption that wokeness actually exists in our schools.”
Over the past two years of teaching this course over Zoom from my home in Philadelphia, I have heard many of my students speak of a lack of Black history in their districts—and of resistance from parents and administrators to correct that omission.
In his 2021 book Fugitive Pedagogy, Harvard University’s Jarvis R. Givens argues that the legacy of slavery has created ongoing surveillance of Black history teaching. Denying Black people an education has always been a prime tool of white supremacy. For me, white supremacy is the systems and structures of oppression, created and perpetuated to maintain white people’s privilege and power. Therefore, white supremacy in education can be traced all the way back to plantation life where an enslaved person could be killed for learning or teaching another Black person how to read or write.
Black people have always shown resilience in educating themselves. Through secretly learning, sharing information, and developing their own curriculum, they often developed Black history in the shadows.
Unfortunately, teachers still face restrictions today when trying to provide opportunities for students of color to learn about their own history.
Last year, for example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banned the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course. Several months later, Arkansas’ education department decided the course would no longer count toward high school graduation credits.
My students themselves are a diverse group. They range from elementary to high school educators and teach a range of subjects, including art, French, literature, and social studies. I also have had students who are not teachers but rather hold diversity, equity, and inclusion positions in their school districts. Regardless of their profession, my students have all been eager to incorporate Black history into their curriculum.
These students often describe their experiences facing community and administrative pushback after any discussions about race. Some teachers reported that parents complained when they incorporated any discussion of race or Black history into their lessons. Others said they were encouraged by their administration to stay away from discussions of race or institutional racism in their lessons. One student recounted her difficulty in dismantling blatant racism that some of her students were clearly inheriting at home.
In this course, which is a requirement for a racial-equity and educational justice certificate program, I provide a guide on Black history pedagogy, effective strategies for engagement, and tools for facilitating discussions around race.
It is imperative that educators of Black history teach through Black history rather than just about it, in the words of LaGarrett J. King (who has been the guest editor of EdWeek’s Black History Month Opinion project since 2021). “Until we believe Black people are historical vessels,” he writes, “we will continue to suffer from anti-Blackness and an inequitable society that continue to relegate Black histories to the margins.”
I have tried to reclaim Black history from the margins by incorporating diverse perspectives in my course that counter false white supremacist narratives about the Black experience.
For example, in one lesson dispelling myths and stereotypes surrounding the division of enslaved labor between field and house work, my grad students watched Malcolm X describe why he considered himself a “field negro.” The students challenged his assertion that the “house negro” loved his master and debated whether enslaved people who worked inside the house had it easier. This lesson also provided an opportunity for students to discuss colorism.
I have found the most success in this course with assigning flexible projects that can be adapted to any classroom. These assignments address a common problem that many of my students have shared: simply finding suitable resources that include Black history appropriately.
I, therefore, ask my students to create their own resources for teaching Black history. They must create a vision board that incorporates local Black history, a Black History Month proposal that includes an email to the principal and Google slide deck that could be presented to staff, and a lesson or unit incorporating Black history.
One 8th grade humanities teacher shed light on environmental racism for the local vision-board assignment. A 2nd grade teacher found a way to center Black joy by having students create a collage inspired by the work of the contemporary artist Nancey B. Price. Another middle school humanities teacher developed a unit examining the state’s abolitionist reputation.
As that last teacher wrote in her final synthesis, “Focusing on Vermont’s Black history has required me to sit with some discomfort around facing hard truths about our state’s overt racism, and how that juxtaposes with the images and perceptions of liberal and welcoming Vermont.”
Overall, what I have learned from developing this course is how teachers struggle with both lack of knowledge and political pushback when teaching Black history. I hope that these experiences will continue to inspire educators to find creative and meaningful ways to incorporate Black history into their classrooms.