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Students lead U.S. campaign for more comprehensive black history education

TRENTON, NJ (AP) – Ebele Azikiwe was in sixth grade last year when February arrived and it was time to learn more about black history. She was familiar with the program by then: Rosa Parks, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and a discussion of slavery. Just like the year before, she said, and the year before.

Then came George Floyd’s death in May, and she wrote to her school administration in Cherry Hill, a suburb of Philadelphia, New Jersey, asking for more than the same lessons.

“We learned about slavery, but did we get to the roots of slavery?” Ebele, 12, said in an interview. “You learned how they were to cross, but did you learn how they felt tied up on these boats?”

His letter moved from principal to superintendent and then started to grab headlines, leading to promises to include more comprehensive black history lessons.

In the months following Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, educators say they heard a demand from students for more comprehensive black history lessons beyond what was already on offer. Lawmakers and states have passed or started implementing legislation calling for more inclusive instruction.

The previous generation of courses focused on cultural awareness. What the schools found, according to Maurice Hall – the dean of the College of New Jersey’s School of Arts and Communications and a social justice scholar – was that students still had socio-economic, cultural and social blind spots. racial.

Growing up with a majority perspective might mean thinking that the way a particular culture sees the world “is actually the right way,” Hall said.

Connecticut implemented a law in December requiring high schools to offer classes in black and Latin American studies. New Jersey, where learning standards already included diversity education classes, last month became the latest state to pass legislation requiring school districts to incorporate diversity and inclusion guidelines.

A handful of other states have pending legislation that would make similar changes, including Washington and Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The pandemic is in part attributed to the response to Floyd’s death as he was pinned down by a white cop, a confrontation that was filmed and broadcast in homes where people were secluding themselves. The effect has spread to schools, said Michael Conner, the superintendent of Middletown, Connecticut. The students organized rallies and helped bring the race to the top of educators’ consciousness.

The story of African Americans and other non-Europeans tends to focus on how these societies were marginalized, while Europeans are portrayed as culturally competent, Conner said, in what he calls a background. of “deficit”, as opposed to a context of “asset”.

Like 12-year-old Ebele, he pointed out that he had learned of the existence of the same handful of prominent African-American figures.

“When I look at my education, the only time I learned black history in school was in February,” he said. “I learned about my culture at the dining room table with my mom and grandmother.”

Districts that add diversity to their programs now need to figure out how to do it and what it looks like.

In New Jersey, the education department is required to provide sample activities and resources for districts. And some schools there and elsewhere are adding books to the curriculum or reviewing them in new ways.

In Middletown, Dan Raucci, an English supervisor, pointed out that Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has long been a Grade 10 staple. Students and teachers discuss whether Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, is a “hero of today or this time?”

But the neighborhood has added new books, like Jason Reynolds “The Boy in the Black Suit,” a novel that follows a black teenager as he grapples with grief.

The changes actually came before the Connecticut law was implemented in 2020, but the events of the past year have underscored the imperative to revise the program.

New Jersey law calls for creating a welcoming environment “regardless of race or ethnicity, sexual and gender identities, mental and physical disabilities, and religious beliefs.” It also seeks to examine unconscious bias or implicit bias.

This raised concerns among some right-wing groups that the government was forcing students to adopt beliefs. Among those who testified against the bill was the conservative Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey.

“Students must learn to respect the beliefs and backgrounds of others based on their unique experiences and cultures,” Shawn Hyland, director of advocacy, said in a statement last year. “However, diversity training in public schools is quite the opposite. of respect. “

This criticism suggests that conservative states – unlike liberal New Jersey and other states that pass program diversity laws – may balk at such programs. Already in Iowa, lawmakers have passed a bill to ban diversity training in schools, and in Idaho, lawmakers have voted to kill a higher education budget on diversity programs in the universities.

But in New Jersey, Ebele’s mother Rume Joy Azikiwe-Oyeyemi, 38, was surprised that her daughter’s efforts received such support. She said she had no idea that so much progress could be made in such a short time.

“As a mom, I am more than proud,” she said. “And after?”

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