By Rewon Shimray | Reporter
While black history is emphasized in the month of February, historians call for the inclusion of African-American stories into the broader American dialogue.
Although few students would voluntarily do extra school work than is required, Round Rock senior Nuri Hubbard said she is glad her mom assigned her book reports growing up.
“I used to hate it then, I really did. My mom used to have me do a report once a month on a prominent African-American figure,” Hubbard said. “Looking back, it’s like, wow, she was really trying to teach me about our history and where we are now and how far we’ve come.”
Dr. James M. SoRelle, professor of history, said students’ knowledge of African-American history is “relatively limited.” That is most likely due to a lack of attention to the subject in elementary to high school curriculum, he said.
SoRelle specializes in African-American history, 20th century U.S. history and Urban American History. He first began to gain interest in African-American studies while at the University of Houston in the late ’60s through the early ’70s, a time when studies of people of African descent were just beginning to be integrated into higher-level education institutions.
Decades later, schools still struggle to include African-American history in the curriculum. The Southern Poverty Law Center evaluated inclusion of core concepts on the civil rights movement in state education standards. According to the study, 20 states received an “F” in 2014, five of which — Alaska, Iowa, Maine, Oregon and Wyoming — did not require coverage of the movement at all.
SoRelle said Texas continues to have “routinely battles” over what should and should not be included in history textbooks.
SoRelle said focusing on the small percentage of the population that “shaped all of the policies and laws” does not represent the whole population and “gives you a truncated picture of history.”
“The historical record should be fuller in terms of what it talks about than, frankly, a group of dead white males — who, because of the world in which they lived, were always going to be the leaders,” SoRelle said. “It’s not that you dismiss those leaders, but you understand that if you want a full picture of American history, you have to go beyond that.”
He said there is a challenge in balancing between what is left from the traditional history and what should be added to create a more inclusive record.
“Somebody’s feelings get hurt every time you leave them out, but the reality is, for the long history of writing, historical textbooks in this country have been fairly racially one-dimensional,” SoRelle said. “It shouldn’t be a story of who gets the most press but I think the text ought to be more reflective of the real world in which people live.”
SoRelle said providing “the best education in history” requires history to be “far more inclusive than generations prior to us have been.”
“We do Black History Month, then we push it aside and get down to business. What I think has always been overlooked is that the history of African-Americans is American history,” SoRelle said.
Hubbard said Black History Month helps her recognize significant figures in the African-American figures, that empower her. For example, she said she knows African-Americans are educators, but she did not have a black professor until her senior year at Baylor. Hubble said Black History Month specifically provides a time to daily “recognize prominent black figures on social media.”
Founder of Black History Month, Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, lived in the early 19th century and observed a lack of reverence toward and interest in professional historians who studied the history of people of African descent.
SoRelle said Woodson established the Journal of Negro History in 1916 as a scholarly quarterly publication to provide a platform to get those unfavored historians’ works published. The context of this journal, SoRelle explained, was President Woodrow Wilson, who segregated White House offices, announcing entry into World War I in order to make the world safe for democracy.
“Who’s democracy? There were African-American intellectuals who would ask that question,” SoRelle said. “If we’re fighting for democracy abroad, why aren’t we fighting for democracy at home?”
A decade after releasing the first issue of the journal, Woodson established Negro History Week in February, which eventually grew to be a month.
“Woodson himself insisted that the significance of celebrating a negro week or month was to build cooperation within racial lines. It was to have an integrative function,” SoRelle said. “It was focused on American school children. You put this information into the schools, and it gives all American children, regardless of their racial background or socioeconomic background, and gives them an opportunity to obtain information about some other group.”
According to the NAACP History, Woodson was hopeful for a time when “all Americans would willingly recognize the contributions of Black Americans as a legitimate and integral part of the history of this country” and the commemorative week would no longer be needed.
“[Black History Month] did not derive from this separatist notion that black people need to know about black people,” SoRelle said. “It’s designed to do what historical education is supposed to do, and that is to educate people in a much wider understanding of how people live, how they have lived over time, the experiences that they have had. Woodson argued that that was the path to democracy.”
Hubbard said today’s hostile society sees everything in black and white, which makes it even more important to “broadcast” black history.
“The public conversation that goes on today about race operates against the backdrop of that long standing notion that one group of people is superior to another group of people biologically. To get out of that mindset, is very difficult. Unless — going back to Woodson — unless people really know folks of different backgrounds and heritages and races, you’re going to perpetuate those stereotypes,” SoRelle said.
Baylor offers interdisciplinary courses relating to black history and relations. Some courses offered in fall 2018 include:
- HIS 3371 – History of Black Americans
- HIS 4368 – Civil War/Reconstruction
- PSC 3320 – Minority/Ethnic Politics
- PSC 3325 – Ethnopolitical Conflicts
- SOC 3311 – Sociology of Race & Ethnicity
- JOU 4305 – Gender, Race & Media
SoRelle said he thinks Woodson would be happy to see more recent integrations of the stories of different social groups in the course curriculum, but “there’s still work to be done.”
“We’ve all seen the news stories over the past couple of years and it’s very clear that racism still does exist,“ Hubbard said.
The New York Magazine reported a continuation of significant increases in the murder rate in the U.S. since 2015. While the number of both white and black homicide victims and offenders are increasing, the New York Magazine reports different causes for each demographic. To explain the increasing violence among the black population, the New York Magazine cites the “Ferguson effect,” which postulates that police, “worried about getting sued or speaking social unrest or otherwise upsetting the delicate relationship between police departments and black communities,” are less likely to engage in aggressive police work that would prevent these incidences.
SoRelle said the concern over the interaction between minority groups and law enforcement can be traced back into U.S. history. He said “those problems, whatever their origins are, have not been successfully addressed.”
“We don’t live, in my opinion, in a post-racial world. We don’t live in a post-civil rights world,” SoRelle said.
SoRelle said while an understanding of history can help understand what has been done in the past, “we can’t call upon our ancestors to solve these issues,” so it is the responsibility of people living in the present to act.