The challenge of teaching black history: sifting truth, myth, bias

From left, Darius Hicks, host of the podcast “While Black,” interviews Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project alumni Xavier Shankle and Payton Gunner in Roswell, Ga., on Jan. 6, 2020. PHOTO BY ELISSA BENZIE for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

From left, Darius Hicks, host of the podcast “While Black,” interviews Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project alumni Xavier Shankle and Payton Gunner in Roswell, Ga., on Jan. 6, 2020. PHOTO BY ELISSA BENZIE for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

NOTE: During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

The odyssey of black people in the United States began 400 years ago with the arrival of slaves from West Africa. With that kind of introduction, the relationship with this country has often been controversial, but still relevant. So how do you accurately incorporate that history into lessons that teach students what shaped this country’s past and has lasting effects on its future?

Frederick Knight is a history professor at Morehouse College. He specializes in the African Diaspora and agreed that it can be tricky distinguishing fact from fiction in the history of a race that rarely was allowed to chronicle its own stories.

“Especially in K through 12 education it’s important to provide doses of truth and allow the students to make their own discoveries,” he said. “That sets them up to be lifelong learners who cross-check facts and don’t accept everything at face value.”

Knight published the book, “Working the Diaspora: The Impact of African Labor on the Anglo-American World, 1650-1850,” in 2010. He argues that the knowledge that Africans carried across the Atlantic shaped Anglo-American agricultural development and made particularly important contributions to cotton, indigo, tobacco, and staple food cultivation.

Even though they didn’t come of their own free will, the African slaves contributed a lot to this country and that’s a huge takeaway for understanding black history, Knight said. He challenges Americans to alter their conceptual frameworks about Africans by looking at them as workers who, through the course of the Atlantic slave trade and plantation labor, shaped the development of the Americas in significant ways.

How to frame slavery is an issue educators in kindergarten through high school have wrestled with for decades. Southern states like Georgia, the home of Martin Luther King Jr., have it especially tough. In the age of Confederate revisionism, mixed views on President Trump and calls for reparations for slavery, and after the first black president, Georgia has education standards that incorporate black people in just about every aspect of history.

“These standards were created by teachers across the state, education leaders, curriculum directors and stakeholders,” said Joy Hatcher, social studies program manager for the Georgia Department of Education.

The curriculum is evaluated every four to eight years to add new information and reflect educational standards. That last revision for social studies was completed in June 2016 for the 2017-2018 school year.

And although educators can’t pretend certain things didn’t happen, they aim to put lessons into age-appropriate context. For example, the story of Ruby Bridges talks about integration and civil rights from the perspective of a schoolgirl.

“We provide sample units and lessons that meet state standards as well as support and other resources for teachers,” said Hatcher.

The Georgia Standards of Excellence for Social Studies integrates the history of African Americans throughout the school year, K-12. Although there are GSE standards that address black history K-12, courses such as United States history and Georgia studies specifically address this subject.

Schools use the month of February to spotlight historical figures. According to a Cobb County Public Schools spokesman, the social studies department will share a black history resource guide with schools and support local school events.

Clayton County Public Schools allows students to dive deeper into the legacy of African Americans in the United States. Over the years, in addition to providing teachers with a variety of lesson plans that allow them to select engaging topics, schools have been provided with a list of places relative to African-American History that can be visited as class field trips or with guardians over the weekend.

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Kellye Britton, director of operations for the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project, appears as a guest on the podcast “While Black,” which tapes at Dammahum Recording Studio in Roswell, Ga., on Jan. 6, 2020. PHOTO BY ELISSA BENZIE for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Fulton County does not mandate how schools recognize Black History Month, but encourages platforms for rich discussion among students — hosting an array of special events such as musicals and dramatic performances, inviting guest speakers, and holding competitions such as door decorations and cafeteria trivia.

Cherokee County’s eighth-grade Georgia history curriculum includes lessons on African Americans’ accomplishments and contributions — historical, political, social, and economic. An example of one way to do this is a scavenger hunt for students involving quotes from notable figures from black history posted on the walls throughout the school. Students create a timeline of black history from the quotes.

While many in the black community applaud those efforts, some aren’t sure they’re enough. They argue that to effectively teach black history, black people must take control of their own narrative and ensure that it’s not just about looking back, but mainly looking forward. In doing so, we can’t forget our humanity, many implore.

Janice Bell, a paraprofessional at a day care center near Emory University and the CDC, was one of the first black children to integrate a white school in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“At 8 years old, I was assigned to South Ridgewood Elementary. It was the first elementary school in Volusia County to accept black students. I had a reading disability so they asked my mother if I could attend South Daytona Elementary — which had no blacks at all. My mother agreed because the wheels of change had already started moving.”

Bell said she had no trouble.

“I think it’s mainly because racism has to be taught. Some of the kids were curious about me, but nobody bullied me or called me names,” she said. “That’s how it is at my school here in Atlanta. We have such diversity that nobody focuses on the differences. Even though they are little ones, they know everyone’s not the same.”

Darius Hicks, producer of the podcast “While Black,” moved to metro Atlanta from Mississippi. He found that the best education was only in predominantly white areas and that perception carried over in his decision where to locate here.

“When you look at an educational system that is predominately black you think, ‘I’m not sending my kids there!’ ” he said. “But after getting to know what’s available and taking a better look at several communities, I know that’s not the case.”

With many school districts now majority minority and others headed in that direction, educators have become more cognizant of cultural differences. He created the podcast a few years ago to challenge the current narrative about blacks.

“We are often seen as scary to white Americans,” he said. “But when you look at the majority of us, we go to work every day, pay our taxes, try to raise our kids and live a great life. We want the same things everyone else wants. Somewhere along the way, somebody else defined us and it’s time for us to set the definition straight.”

He set up a series for Black History Month titled “Black Future.” Each week will pay homage to history by looking at what’s coming next.

"We don't have to rely on others to tell our stories. We have the tools and the skills to use those tools." —Kellye Britton, director of operations and programming for the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project

The first installment will feature Kellye Britton, director of operations and programming for the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project. The program promotes educational equity by creating opportunities for underserved youth to gain exposure and access to academic training that will distinguish them as top candidates in the college admissions process. She explains on the podcast how to invest in youth and how to create standards of excellence.

“I’m blown away on almost a daily basis with how many gifted and talented young people we have,” she said. “But potential isn’t enough. We have to work to hone those skills and give them opportunities to excel.”

In her role with the Harvard debate project, she encourages students to find solutions to issues on their own. Before the students become great debaters, they must be great thinkers, she said.

“That’s how we ensure that our history is OUR history,” she said. “We don’t have to rely on others to tell our stories. We have the tools and the skills to use those tools.”

She gave an example of a time in her academic career where she chose to take control of her narrative.

“In school I was often the only minority in most classes,” she said. “In a literature and writing class we were given the opportunity to write papers on books of our choosing. … I did my 10th grade thesis on ‘Waiting to Exhale.’ ”

She added that she gradually realized she didn’t have to hide behind a veil of ‘being black.’ It was obvious to people who and what she was. So, unapologetically, she delved into her history and culture.

“I not only made an A in the class,” she said. “I made the highest grade that instructor had ever awarded. And I stayed true to self.”

Hicks’ son Isaiah, who is a member of the current Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project group, is producing this series.

“He’s doing it all — booking the guests, setting up topics and questions, editing the raw audio,” said Hicks.

HDCDP alumni Payton Gunner and Xavier Shankle are guests on the second installment of the podcast. Their topic centers around respect for past black history pioneers and moving the narrative forward. And in the final two episodes, those scholars will take over as hosts.

“All four episodes are about youth, through youth and for youth,” said Hicks. “At the same time, however, we have to enlighten everyone else, especially white people. They shouldn’t be surprised by our accomplishments. And we should speak as loud — no louder — about those than we do about the negative stuff.”

Author Curtis Claytor agrees that knowledge is power. In the good old days, families used to gather on the porch in the evenings and tell stories about the past. Today’s kids know little about their own families, much less pioneers who paved the way for them.

In “The Ultimate Black History Trivia Book” Claytor included 2,000 multiple-choice questions and answers in four categories: history, music, sports and television, arts and literature.

“Most of us learn in school about Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, and George Washington Carver. But who was the woman who refused to sit in the Jim Crow section of a train in 1883 or the black man who invented the gas mask and the three-signal stoplight?” said Claytor.

He said it’s important to learn about inventors and the heroes of the black struggle, but also about about the horrific racial violence that is seldom mentioned in history books.

“Do you know about the race riot that resulted in the murder of over 200 blacks and the destruction of more than 1,100 black businesses and homes?” he asked. Few Americans do, he said.

At the end of the day, it’s important that the stories get told, said Knight. “Images matter.”

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More information

“While Black” calls itself a podcast on black excellence. During February, it’s focusing on “black futures” while paying homage to black history.

Check out the 'While Black' podcast at

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section that day.

Go to for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.

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