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You Should Be Teaching Black Historical Contention (Opinion)

“The enslaved all wanted the same thing—to escape slavery!”

I vividly remember my 5th grade teacher telling us this when she taught the underground railroad. As a child, I never noticed or questioned the narratives that teachers or textbooks taught us about Black people’s pursuit of freedom, but, now, as both a critical scholar of Black history education and a social studies teacher educator, I wish I could go back to my 5th grade classroom and ask my teacher: But what about the enslaved people who did not want to escape?

The uncritical Black histories that I learned as a child left little to no room for me or my classmates to see Black people as complex individuals who were theorists, logicians, or dreamers whose varied ideologies produced liberated futures for all people.

Instead, labels such as “enlightened thinkers” or “founding fathers” were reserved for white men who disagreed over taxation and governmental control. Even more, when, or if, we were taught about the routinely mentioned philosophical differences between Black men such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, their ideologies were frequently reduced to rudimentary, often incorrect, binaries that pitted Black historical figures against each other.

But as LaGarrett J. King has written, a critical component of Black history instruction is learning about Black historical contention. This means examining the varied ways that Black people’s thoughts and ideas diverged throughout history and acknowledging that not all Black histories are positive. While I agree that teaching Black historical contention is an essential component of Black history instruction, I also recognize that we live in an anti-Black society that seeks any opportunity to portray Black people as divided and uncivilized and to render Black histories as inconsequential.

Thus, I am cautious to encourage educators to teach Black historical contention without paying attention to their intentions.

To teach Black historical contention responsibly, educators must first reflect on their intentions for teaching Black history. Depending on the Black historical topic, teachers should ask themselves questions, such as:

  • When I teach about the differences in Black perspectives, is my intention to vilify and pit Black people against each other or to present different perspectives to nuance Black thought beyond simplified binaries?
  • When I teach about the different approaches that Black historic figures and organizations engaged in to pursue liberation, is my intention to highlight dissension among Black people or to amplify the diverse and thoughtful approaches with which these figures and organizations engaged?
  • When I teach about enslaved people who did not want to escape, is my intention to convince students that enslavement was “not that bad,” or am I making space for students to consider that some enslaved people may have feared the consequences of being caught?

Teaching Black historical contention is not easy, and it can be harmful if one’s intentions are centered on reproducing anti-Black stereotypes. Conversely, with the right intentions, teaching Black contention can strengthen Black history instruction. Below, I offer examples, with cautions, on how educators can begin to incorporate Black historical contention into their classrooms.

1. Be mindful of your language. Teaching Black historical contention can expand students’ understandings of the different ways that Black people pursued Black liberation; however, instead of positioning Black people as adversaries, educators should focus on the historical figures’ ideological differences. Educators can ask students to examine how the historical figures’ ideas, though different, led to the same or similar overarching goals of reaching Black liberation.

2. Explicitly state that oppressive systems are not specific to Black people. Teaching Black historical contention can create opportunities for students to interrogate how Black organizations fighting for equality perpetuated oppressive systems such as colorism, misogyny, and homophobia. However, when asking students to examine how some Black organizations during the Civil Rights Movement engaged in skin tone discrimination or intentionally excluded Black women or queer Black people, educators should be sure to connect those systems to larger societal structures. The point here is not to remove Black complicity from operating within these systems but rather to acknowledge that these systems are not anomalous, and they are byproducts of the patriarchal, racist systems on which this country was founded. Even more, teachers can use this example of Black historical contention to discuss the intersectional experiences of people who had multiple marginalized identities, such as Black women.

3. Recognize the humanity in Black people. Teaching Black historical contention can humanize Black histories, but that starts with humanizing Black people. When asking students to consider different approaches to enslaved resistance, center the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the enslaved. Complicate the narratives around Black resistance and amplify Black humanity by asking questions such as how leaving family behind might have impacted an enslaved person’s decision to escape.

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