Black history — blacked out
AS I SEE IT – By Kevin P. Chavous and Kenneth L. Campbell
Feb. 24, 2011
February is Black History Month, which celebrates one of the important strands that has been woven into the American experience. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny.”
But today, fewer and fewer Massachusetts students from all backgrounds are learning about the role African-American men and women played in our nation’s history.
That’s because what isn’t tested isn’t taught. Citing the fiscal crisis, the commonwealth postponed a mandate that Massachusetts public school students pass an MCAS U.S. history test to graduate from high school. History had been slated to join English language arts, math and science as a graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2012.
Two years later, with no signs of reinstatement, that postponement is looking more and more like a permanent cancellation.
Black history is particularly important to Massachusetts students, because so much of it happened in the Bay State. Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the nation’s leading abolitionist, lived for a time in the commonwealth. W.E.B. Du Bois was born and raised in Great Barrington before he went on to help found the NAACP. Boston is where Dr. King earned his Ph.D.
John A. Andrew, who was governor of Massachusetts during the Civil War, was fervently committed to abolishing slavery. He authorized formation of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the American military’s first official black units, which saw extensive service for the Union army.
Today, a monument to the Massachusetts 54th stands across the street from the Statehouse. Gov. Deval Patrick calls Gov. Andrew an inspiration and his portrait hangs in the corner office.
In 2007 and again last month, Mr. Patrick took the oath of office on the Mendi Bible. In 1841, Massachusetts’ John Quincy Adams, the former president, persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to free African captives who staged a mutiny aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad. The men then gave Adams the Bible as a symbol of gratitude; over time it took on the name of their tribe.
But until state education leaders reinstate the MCAS history requirement, students won’t know these important chapters in black — and Massachusetts — history. Without that knowledge, they can’t grasp the importance of Barack Obama, our nation’s first African-American president, winning three former Confederate states — Virginia, North Carolina and Florida — in the 2008 election.
The content students are missing out on is of high academic quality. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation just found Massachusetts’ U.S. history standards to be among the country’s best.
If not for public education, America’s breathtaking diversity might result in chaos. But by imbuing students from all cultures and backgrounds with a universal set of democratic values, education turns a potential weakness into our nation’s most enduring strength.
Without that knowledge of how America has been strengthened by all who have contributed to it, Massachusetts students can’t understand, as Frederick Douglass wrote, “In a composite nation like ours … there should be … no white, no black, but common country, common citizenship, equal rights, and a common destiny.”
Kevin P. Chavous is board chair of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Kenneth L. Campbell is president of BAEO and a member of Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform Advisory Board.