Harvard professor explains harmful effects of white-washing American history

Black history is American history.

And yet, children rarely spend more than a few chapters exploring Black stories, contributions to society and leaders during their school years.

As a nation, we cannot move forward without understanding the past, meaning that as we look to dismantle systemic racial injustices, we need to know how these systems were first built in order to take them down. 

In this week’s episode of Verizon’s #Next20, David Hubbard spoke with Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad to discuss recent events and the importance of studying Black history as a blueprint to build a more equitable future.

“What’s important in 2020 is really understanding why we have not taught these histories, how these systems were built and the possibility for dismantling,” said Dr. Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Although it’s true that American history is a mainstay of pretty much all K-12 classrooms, Dr. Muhammad explains that the version of our past taught in educational settings is a form of “civic nationalism,” which serves to white-wash and compartmentalize our society.

“It is a history that underwrites a tale of American exceptionalism that says, here is the greatest nation on earth, the wealthiest nation on earth, this is how America became a superpower rooted in these founding principles of liberal democracy that then became the most important nation the world has ever known,” he explained. “And what these stories are meant to do is to bind us together in a universal theme of how we as a nation have accomplished many great things.”

This type of narrative “has cost us dearly,” Dr. Muhammad warned, as it suggests that “Black history is something separate and apart from the national story.”

“It positions slavery, for example, as something that shouldn’t have happened, but it wasn’t that important because, well, we ended it, and so let’s move on,” he explained. “But the truth is that what our students ought to be learning, that we can opt to choose to teach them, is that there is no American history without Black people’s contributions to it. There’s no founding American wealth without the experience of enslaved Africans as the wealth generators for this nation.”

During this particularly tumultuous time in our nation’s history, as protests continue across the U.S. to fight against systemic injustice and violence toward Black people, Dr. Muhammad says it’s now more important than ever to “get our history right.”

“It is the possibility in front of us that will give us a new origin story of America that will actually help America be a better place,” he said. “At the end of the day, Black people making the case is not enough for white people to choose to change their behavior. And so that’s the work that’s in front of us. That’s why we want to give those who are ready to change the history [and] the information they need, but they have to first choose to want to change. That’s where we are today.”

Catch the episode in full here.

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