Letters: What We Didn't Learn About Black History | Sojourners

Letters: What We Didn't Learn About Black History

Visitors admiring art at the William Benton Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Connecticut. Photo: Raymond Deleon / Alamy.
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In a recent opinion short, Sojourners multimedia producer Jayne Marie Smith explored the spiritual implications of the missing education and miseducation about Black Americans in the U.S. education system. “Despite scripture commanding: ‘You shall not testify falsely [that is, lie, withhold, or manipulate the truth] against your neighbor,’ some people today choose to uphold versions of history that ‘withhold or manipulate truth,’ rather than teaching children about the courage and integrity of Black heroes or the conviction of outspoken white allies,” she said in the video.

On her Facebook post sharing the video, Smith asked viewers to add what they learned — or didn’t learn — about the history of Black people in the U.S. Below are some of the replies she received.

All responses are shared with permission, and lightly edited for length and clarity.

What God expects

“I was taught virtually nothing of Black history except maybe something about George Washington Carver. Understand I am an almost 67 year old white woman who grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. If anything, my upbringing instilled a dislike, avoidance, and fear of all Black people who I was told were perpetrators of crime and ruining the once beautiful city of Detroit. White Christians in the burbs were more than willing to support missionaries to go to Africa and convert Black people there, but would not even entertain the idea of helping their Black brothers and sisters who lived 10 or 20 miles away …

Needless to say, it has been a lifetime of me undoing all the misinformation and lack of truth that was imparted to me. …Bottom line is, God created everyone with all our differences and Jesus died for all of the world, not just certain races or cultures… He expects us to treat others with dignity and worth. That includes owning the truth about their histories and accomplishments and admitting where we have been wrong in the past.” —Leeann Yamakawa

‘Mentioned here or there’

“I honestly thought about what I was taught in school, and sad to say [there was] not much about MY history. I went to Catholic school most of my life. I remember being taught about the pilgrims. Outside of MLK, I do not recall being taught anything about Black history. I learned about slavery from watching Roots as a child. Slavery might have been mentioned here or there, and in high school we might have touched on a few Black inventors, but being TAUGHT and TRAINED – I was taught my hair was nappy and my complexion was too light to be Black and not light enough to be white.” —Marsha Jacintha

A colonized education

One reader related her experience of learning history in Africa: “One thing I find interesting is as an African child in Africa (Kenya), my history class still placed so much emphasis on colonists bringing education and Christianity to Africa. Little was taught about our culture pre-colonialism. Then in literature, we studied books by European writers. I think I came across African literature in [university]. Then, when growing up our first language was mostly mother tongue (local Kenyan tribal languages), but when you enroll in school, English automatically became the official language. It wasn’t until recently that emphasis [started] being placed on African history, culture and language.” —Ma Kayla Wanja

Constantly being untaught

Another reader commented on his experience growing up as a Black man in Texas: “I learned the basics: reading, writing, math and someone’s version of history. In Texas, we were taught to pass standardized tests. …My education wasn’t integrated at all. Teachers put up posters to highlight Black people in February, Latinx people in September, Women in March, etc. Most of my education centered the achievements of white men. … I was blessed to have a father who taught history, so I was constantly being untaught the whitewashed version of history that was being shared with me during school.” —Calvin J. Walker

Contempt wrapped around a cross

“I’ve spent my adult life actively unlearning the crap I was ‘taught’ in ‘Christian’ school. The minute I stepped foot on a college campus, I started to realize everything I thought I knew about history, Jesus, [and] what it means to be a Chrisitan was a washed-out, propaganda cesspool of not so low-key hate and contempt wrapped around a wooden cross.” —Melanie Martini Schaaf

‘I knew there was more’

One of the respondents asked Smith, what she experienced and remembered learning. Smith replied: “I remember asking, ‘What was going on in Africa,’ in our world history class, but I don’t remember the answer. I only know it wasn’t sufficient…[I remember it feeling dismissive as if it shouldn’t be important, or like I was being disruptive or distracting.] I remember coming home disappointed and thinking I wasn’t going to learn about myself in school. My cousin had given me her African American literature book and my mom was studying Africana studies at Wayne State University, so I knew there was more. I resented World History focusing on the European world.

It was around that time I realized when it came to American History, that my historical experience was omitted – from wars, from western expansion, from politics… My education at [that Christian school] left me feeling less than – like I had an incomplete story of myself and less stake in this country. I don’t know if I could’ve fully expressed that at the time, but I was definitely aware that I wasn’t seeing myself and wasn’t getting answers and that history and literature were very Euro-focused.”Jayne Marie Smith

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