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AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES BAN

Williams: The war on Black history is hurting white Americans too

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As we approach February’s Black History Month, cynical politicians are attempting an erasure of the Black narrative in America history.

What was meant to begin as a simple Google search to learn the history of a historically black neighborhood, led sisters Enjoli and Dr. Seisha Moon down a rabbit hole that included The Richmond Times-Dispatch and Valentine Museum to open their archives for continual research that ultimately lead to the re-framing and updates to the history of the Jackson Ward neighborhood. The project sheds light on how the true history of a place is too often painted over and how reparative historic preservation can restore pride and appreciation for the past and outlook for the future.

A little over a year ago — on of all occasions, the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order casting a chill over how lessons about race and racism should be taught in the K-12 classroom. And earlier this month, the state of Florida followed up on its prior “Stop Woke Act” by banning a high school AP course on African American studies.

The banned course was developed by the very mainstream College Board, a venerable nonprofit organization responsible for administering standardized tests like the SAT. The administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the course “significantly lacks educational value.” That sounds like a way of saying Black people have no role in the American narrative that white students are obliged to learn.

African Americans are no strangers to being written out of the American story. But Mignonne Guy, chair of the African American Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, sees something less discussed but no less insidious at work.

“It’s not just anti-Blackness. It is an explicit act of legislating white ignorance ... because they are being robbed of their history as well,” she said of white students.

She recalled the 2020 movement for Black lives after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer — an event that triggered street protests and Confederate monument removal in Richmond, but also sparked marches in overwhelmingly white cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Salt Lake City. What was one of the largest multiracial civil rights protests in American history unnerved people invested in the maintenance of white supremacy.

“There were too many white young people out there marching with Black people hand in hand,” Guy said. “That is the biggest concern that they have ... white people being educated.”

An entire right-wing movement has been built around those fears, centered on such buzz words as critical race theory. “What they’re really banning is dialogue and study around racial inequities,” Guy said.

For Youngkin, this was purported to be about protecting the feelings of white students from the emotional freight of America’s legacy of racism. But really, it’s about insulating these young people from an enlightenment that might steer them toward antiracism. Historical revisionism and the fomenting of racial resentment has always been an effective tool in blinding the masses to their common interests.

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed nine executive orders and two directives on Jan. 15, 2022, the first of which banned “inherently divisive concepts” from being taught in public schools.

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, endowed professor of Virginia Black History and Culture at Norfolk State University, said this conservative attack, while not new, “speaks to a deeper issue in American society about our ongoing efforts to deny our past.”

These elected officials are engaging in Orwellian contortions in their attempts to purge the schoolhouse of lessons about racism and literature by Black, Hispanic and LGBT authors. But racism always produces collateral damage.

“Even when it happens just to Black people, or just to Indigenous people, or just to Latino people, all of the populations suffer,” Guy said. “And people don’t realize that. And the problem is that we consistently focus so much on the anti-Blackness that these white people, these white kids, never understand that they’re explicitly being targeted as well.”

DeSantis, in his naked ambition, appears to have no problem resembling a 21st century iteration of George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who in 1963 blocked an auditorium door in defiance of Black students enrolling at the University of Alabama.

Instead of attempting to bar Black students from the schoolhouse, DeSantis would bar Black folks’ schools of thought from the classroom.

In Virginia, Newby-Alexander, a former member of the Commission on African American History Education under former Gov. Ralph Northam, is outraged at the Youngkin administration’s undermining of that commission’s prior work with the administration’s January draft of the state’s K-12 history standards.

The framers of that draft “forgot that a civil society depends upon our collective sympathy and empathy for one another, especially for those whose rights were historically conscripted in some way or were inextricably harmed by public and private actions,” Newby-Alexander said.

It’s disappointing that this old-school brand of exclusion has become fashionable again less than a decade after a Black man occupied the White House. Then again, some would call this backlash cause and effect.

Guy cited a paper by Texas A&M sociologist Joe Feagin with a revealing timeline that showed Black people in America enslaved for about 60% of the country’s history and under the thumb of Jim Crow for 22%.

“We revert back into those spaces because they are familiar and those are really our foundation,” she said.

It is here that we are not served by the color-coded siloing of our history.

“Black history is American history,” Guy said. “So when we’re saying that there is no utility for Black history, we’re saying there is no utility for real American history.”

A nation that pushes fake history is built on a lie. This fight is everyone’s fight.

Michael Paul Williams (804) 649-6815

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

@RTDMPW on Twitter

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