When I was in school, I was starved for information about who I really am. I ached to hear stories about people who look like me, or see the names of Black scholars in math or science, or even to talk about Africa, without talking about poverty and slavery. Today, too many Black schoolchildren are having the same experience.
Too often, students’ first exposure to Black History occurs through the study of slavery. Too often, Africans are portrayed in schools as savage, barbaric people. Those who came to the Americas were “lucky” because they were saved from savage, unstable, poverty-stricken Africa.
But the reality is, thousands of years of Black history existed before contact with Europe. Too often, teachers don’t know enough about the history of African civilizations to teach their students adequately.
Black scholars like W.E.B Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson realized the only way to liberate Black Americans from shame about our origins would be to educate ourselves about who we truly are. Teaching the history of African civilizations increases everyone’s accurate understanding of world history. In doing so, Black people’s rightful place as equal actors in history becomes visible.
Carter G. Woodson intended Black History Week, which later became Black History Month, to teach the history of Black people in our totality, not just in America. But it has taken incredible amounts of work by pan-African scholars to change entrenched Euro-centric mindsets. For much of the 20th century, scholars debated what should have been obvious, that ancient Egypt was an African civilization. Yet even today, Hollywood movies continue to depict the Egyptians as European and/or non-Black.
The new wave of pan-African scholars are using genetics, archeology and other scientific advances, to present more accurate picture of Africa. With these tools, I am proud to say I can trace the totality of my family’s Black history story and timeline in both Africa and the Americas.
We can trace our African history through the empires of Nubia, Ghana and Mali. We know our ancestors were rice farmers. We know our enslaved ancestors first arrived in Virginia and later traveled to Arkansas. We are Mende people (who are part of the larger Mandiko/Niger-Congo ethnicity) who came to the Americas in the late 1600s. You can read more on this history and my family’s story here.
My children know their ethnicity. They know their history is as long, rich, and deep, as the Western history they are forced to learn in schools. I am now developing a course and curriculum to pass this gift on to as many Black schoolchildren as possible. My goal is to fulfill Carter G. Woodson’s dream for Black HIstory Month, for Black students to know who they are, where they come from, and the beauty, power and complexity of African civilizations.