Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
This year, Black History Month commemorations will unfold alongside efforts in numerous states to ban the teaching of its content. Efforts that purport to bar the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” have evolved into a full-scale assault, with Republican lawmakers unleashing attacks on Black History under the guise of protecting White children from “discomfort.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who seems intent on riding anti-CRT sentiment all the way to the White House, has made national headlines by backing a bill that would prevent any content that would make students or state employees feel “guilt” about their individual identities. Meanwhile, Virginia – home of the capital of the Confederate States of America – also banned CRT.
And now, Glenn Youngkin, Virginia’s first Republican governor in a decade (whose victory was largely orchestrated by his savvy participation in race-fueled culture wars), has now created a tip line for parents who object to the content being taught in public schools. Unsurprisingly, the line has already been flooded by memes using sarcasm to state the obvious – this isn’t about preventing teachers from making kids feel uncomfortable. This is about avoiding discussions of racism – and by extension, Black history – altogether.
Republican lawmakers in multiple states and counties have effectively set out to cancel histories that White parents may find uncomfortable and in the process are seeking to cancel Black History Month and discussion of other uncomfortable histories, including the Holocaust and murderous campaigns unleashed against indigenous peoples as a result of settler colonialism.
Black history offers the nation an unvarnished origin story – one that transcends the mythology of America’s founding and conveys the lived realities of native peoples and Black Americans and their centrality to the United States we live in today.
Sharing these stories with school children in an age-appropriate manner is not something we should fear. But the erroneous narrative that teaching Black history provokes anxiety, discomfort, guilt or anger for White children has insidious roots. Let us not forget that the classrooms of White children have been a battleground before, and that the cry of parental rights and choice were the order of the day back then as well.
Today’s children should have the chance to know and relate to the Black school children, mostly young girls, who braved White mobs during the 1950s and 1960s – and experienced their own anxiety, fear and trauma. That history deserves to be reckoned with by new generations of school children, irrespective of the manufactured concerns of Republican Party officials or White parents.
Efforts to cancel Black history because it’s too uncomfortable also reflect mainstream media narratives centering the anger and indignation of White parents regarding the teaching of Black history in public education. This has largely erased the perspective of Black parents. As one Black mother of three from Charlottesville, Virginia, told the Washington Post, “They say, ‘Our children are too young to hear about racism.’ Who is ‘our’ children? I don’t remember a day of my life when I wasn’t taught about racism, or learning about it through just existing. Our children, meaning Black children, have had to be taught different ways to stay safe to maneuver through the world.”
This effort to block the teaching of histories that make White parents and children uncomfortable is the logical outcome of the manufactured controversy over Critical Race Theory, a theoretical concept taught in law schools that researches the persistence of structural racism in the law and legal policies. In essence, these latest efforts by Virginia and Florida – not to mention those enacted by Mississippi and Tennessee show that what’s afoot here is adult politics, not kids’ educations.
As Tennessee Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Democrat from Memphis and chair of the General Assembly’s Black Caucus told the Associated Press, “Anything that tells the truth about our history, for whatever reason, their fragility comes into play and it is exposed.”
Tellingly, the sweeping new legislation introduced under the auspices of anti-CRT rhetoric and amplified by GOP politicians seeking to cancel Black History nationally, will do more than make it harder to teach about racial slavery, Jim Crow segregation, lynching and structural racism.
It will also deny students an opportunity to analyze and interrogate recent events, such as the 2017 violence in Charlottesville and the January 6 Capitol insurrection – two events to which race was pivotal. Such censorship impoverishes our nation, dishonors the countless numbers of White, Black and multiracial activists who have struggled (and still struggle) to achieve equal citizenship and dignity for all people. To engage this debate on the GOP’s terms sets us on a precarious road of having politicians decide what narratives are legitimate and which are considered unacceptable.
Black History Month has roots in “Negro History Week” created by Carter G. Woodson in 1926. The Harvard-educated Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now the Association for the Study of Afro American Life and History) in 1915 as a way to educate not only Black Americans, but the entire nation about the central role African Americans had played in the development of the United States, from slavery to freedom.
For centuries, we have imbibed Big Lies about the origins of American wealth, technological innovation, military strength and moral and political aspirations. By erasing the centrality of Black people – their labor and intellectual genius in the face of state-sanctioned efforts to exploit them and deny their full citizenship – we managed to create a national consensus around a story of American exceptionalism, one repeated by politicians and schoolchildren, preachers and professors, business leaders and diplomats for much of our history.
That false consensus is what lawmakers seek to preserve in their concerted efforts to suppress Black history in the classroom. What we are now witnessing is the latest White backlash against efforts to reimagine American democracy from the bottom up.
Black History Month is a rich opportunity to resist the small-minded thinking that rationalizes how children cannot – or should not – understand the United States as a nation whose history holds both pride and shame. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded the nation, in his last speech, America’s greatness remains rooted in the “right to protest for right!” This year, as we celebrate Black History Month, this truth is worth remembering now more than ever.