In most American classrooms, education on black history has become something of an afterthought.
Frankly, the textbook publishing world isn’t as diverse as the pupils they’re helping instruct. And so, depending on the school district and how proactive individual teachers are regarding historical accuracy, American children could end up learning that Africans brought to the US between the 16th and 19th centuries were “workers,” not slaves.
The same issue applies to diversity among teachers. According to the US Department of Education: “Less than one in five US public school teachers—18%—are individuals of color, while approximately half—49%—of public elementary and secondary school students are individuals of color.”
In this context, Black History Month is much more than a token commemorative label. For some students, it may be one of the only times they spend significant time in class learning about African-American contributions to society.
Perhaps this is why US president Donald Trump, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, and other Trump administration surrogates remain so confused by African-American history. But while their ignorance may not be surprising, it nonetheless provides clear, albeit inadvertent, proof for why the month-long celebration and recognition of black culture is still relevant and necessary.
In his Black History Month speech on Feb. 1, Trump, as usual, spent much of his remarks talking about himself rather than focusing on the ongoing legacy of black people in the US. He also managed to both condescend to and lie about African Americans. He kvetched about losing the popular vote, rambled on about problems in the “inner city”—Trump-speak for certain stereotypes about the urban poor—and asserted his belief that he had higher support than Hillary Clinton amongst black voters. (For the record, the overwhelming majority of black people voted for Clinton).
But where Trump really took a wrong turn was when he started name-dropping historic black figures—including Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass, “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more, I notice.” Trump seemed to imply here that Douglass, a former slave whose narrative storytelling and advocacy work was a catalyst for the abolitionist movement, may still be alive and working despite his death some 122 years ago. While this is probably more an issue of sloppy grammar than historical revisionism, Trump’s slip had historians—and a lot of Americans—throwing up their hands in frustration.
For a guy who gave a perfunctory nod to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Trump—and others like him—seem to be in desperate need of a guided tour. Indeed, it’s quite clear Trump knows very little about Douglass besides his name and the color of his skin.
Adding insult to injury, White House spokesman Spicer didn’t address his boss’s mistake. Instead, he just rolled with it. “I think he wants to highlight the contributions he has made. And through a lot of the statements he’s going to make, the contributions of Frederick Douglass are going to be more and more,” Spicer said, underscoring for the American public just how ignorant Trump’s administration is on issues of race, ethnicity, and culture.
We don’t need to give these men the benefit of the doubt. Both Trump and Spicer—older white, cisgender, heterosexual, and wealthy men—have access to abundant historical resources, from books to newspaper articles to films and museums. As representatives of the federal government, they have sworn to serve all Americans, which includes over 45 million black Americans. And yet, they’ve made the choice to avoid exerting any energy whatsoever to learn about the lives and histories of African-American people in the US. While they may offer a few platitudes and drop a few famous names, they have no substantive knowledge of the men and women of color who help make America great.
Black history is about much more than the handful of names the average white man can list off the top of his head. Rosa Parks was an amazing activist for many reasons—including plenty that had nothing to do with her riding a bus—but she is not the only black woman deserving of recognition. The average American who saw Hidden Figures over a recent weekend arguably now knows more about the contributions of black women to American society than Trump or Spicer.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Trump’s ignorance is how avoidable it is. Hidden Figures, Moonlight, and Fences are all up for Best Picture at the Oscars, and each film offers keen and unique insight into the diversity of black experiences in America. Black History Month—or at the very least, Oscars season—is as good a time as any to engage in cultural immersion.
And there’s always Google. If you’re unfamiliar with the likes of Frederick Douglass, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, rock and roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, or medical innovators Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, explore the many websites dedicated to profiling black notables, such as The Historymakers. Or just google “African American history.” I’ll wait.
Let Trump’s example be a motivating factor this year. If your local K-12 schools don’t offer any robust Black History Month lesson plans, use this moment to demand quality education. America cannot be a place where white history is the only history that matters.