Texas’ proposed African American Studies course explores ‘richer history’ in high school

Education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Advocates for a new history elective for Texas high school students say an African American Studies course will offer new perspectives on black culture, art and innovation to students across the state.

The State Board of Education gave the course preliminary approval in January. A public comment period on the proposed curriculum starts on March 6, and the SBOE is scheduled for a final vote in April. If members sign off, districts could start offering the class to students this fall.

Based on an innovative course in Dallas Independent School District, the curriculum dives deeper than the historical figures and events included in typical American history classes, like slavery and the civil rights movement.

“I didn’t get access to that until college,” said Dr. Keffrelyn Brown, professor of cultural studies in education at the University of Texas at Austin. It’s “often the case that students that say, ‘You know, I had to come to college to learn this richer history.'”

Brown, a Houston native, said too often, history classes introduce students to African American influence with the start of slavery. It’s important, she said, for the new curriculum to explore black history before the first enslaved people were brought to North American in 1619.

Writer and historian Carter G. Woodson, considered the “Father of Black History,” made the same argument in the early 1900s: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history,” he said.

“So this is not a new concern,” Brown said. “I think that we are at a place now where our society recognizes the importance, or is beginning to recognize the importance and the need to present more diverse stories.”

Students share experiences

The African American Studies course vote comes two years after the SBOE approved the first Mexican American history class offered statewide. That curriculum was based on a course developed for students in Houston, and around the same time board members approved it, they started looking for a similar course exploring black history and culture.

They found it in Dallas ISD. In November 2019, a group of students currently taking the class testified in front of the SBOE to advocate for statewide implementation of their curriculum.

“I always used to sit in history class and wonder, ‘Why don’t they teach us more about the history of African Americans?'” one student told the board. “We’re tired of feeling like we aren’t important enough to be spoken about. We are important, and so is our history.”

That history starts before slavery, and it encompasses much more than the civil rights movement and figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. While those are important topics in any history class, the north Texas students’ curriculum includes a much more inclusive picture of black history: from ancestral roots; to the contributions of the Buffalo Soldiers in World War I and the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II; to the cultural influence of Louis Armstrong, author Zora Neale Hurston and Oprah Winfrey; to the scientific achievements of George Washington Carver and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“African American history is the history of America,” another student told the SBOE.

The board votes

SBOE chair Keven Ellis told KXAN the preliminary curriculum represents a deep dive into black history. He applauded the Dallas students for sharing their experiences with board members.

“That was really beneficial for us,” he said. The board voted at their meeting on Jan. 31 to approve the course on a preliminary basis. If members approve the course in a final vote in April, school districts will be able to decide if they want to offer the elective.

“I think it’s really hard to fully understand American history without understanding the African American experience,” Ellis said.

Brown, who also testified at the November meeting, hopes the SBOE moves forward with the plans. She has two young children, and she wants them to have the opportunity to learn more about their past before they get to college.

“I look forward to seeing what comes next,” she said.

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