EDITORIAL: Black History Month: An uncomfortable elevator ride

The Current Editorial Board
info@marbleheadnews.org | + posts

The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

With Black History Month nearing an end, the debate over teaching Black history in America’s schools continues to divide an already polarized country.

Swept up in culture-war rhetoric, the controversy grows over how topics like the Black Lives Matter movement and critical race theory (a subject largely confined to graduate school curricula) ought to be approached. Or even discussed, period.

Most recently, Florida officials and others have moved to weaken a new Advanced Placement course in African American History by removing from its syllabus prominent Black authors and scholars deemed too “radical” for impressionable young minds.

The course is supposedly designed for high schoolers prepared to do college-level work. It was meant to be challenging, as it should be. If this is their first AP history lesson, it’s a discouraging one.

Then again, teaching Black history should not be confined to our classrooms only. Or hijacked by political or pedagogic agendas leaning right or left.

Marblehead schools and houses of worship have been offering multiple ways to observe Black History Month, using readings, videos, lectures, and biographical sketches to spark important discussions among all local residents, young and old.

During his upcoming visit, Black activist-educator Keith Jones told the Current,  he will remind both students and teachers of “the need to have a foundational respect for peoples’ humanity and who they are,” a particularly timely message for 2023.

In addition, churches in Lynn and Marblehead will hold a community conversation on Feb. 26 around the murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers. Nichols’ death continues to haunt an America struggling with issues around equal justice and racial reckoning.

While these discussions and gatherings are important, let’s also celebrate resources like the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., where Black history comes alive 12 months a year.

Since its opening in 2016, the museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, has welcomed over 7.5 million visitors. A fair percentage have been K-12 schoolchildren, including many from our own town and region. Another 21 million have conducted virtual tours online.

The museum is an architectural marvel and historical treasure trove housing nearly 40,000 artifacts, from abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s shawl to pop star Michael Jackson’s fedora.

When entering the museum, young people do not get a lecture on avoiding “racial grievance” messages or uncomfortable guilt feelings that may be “triggered” by what they see and read.

If anything, they’re cautioned about the graphic nature of images and artifacts from centuries ago, pieces of what historian John Hope Franklin calls “the unvarnished truth” about the Black experience.

To that end, each visit begins with an elevator ride downward, to the basement three levels below. There, an exhibit titled “Slavery and Freedom: The Founding of America” covers a period stretching from the 1400s to the Civil War.

The pictures and words displayed are tough to digest. Slave ships and slave markets are described in harrowing detail, as is their role in an expanding American economy. It is a history that becomes foundational — in every sense — to what’s depicted on the floors above.

Other exhibits cover the Jim Crow era, civil rights movement, Great Migration, and Barack Obama’s election as the 44th U.S. President. Especially powerful is the memorial to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose 1955 murder in Mississippi by white supremacists became an early rallying point for the civil-rights movement.

Higher floors contain exhibits dedicated to iconic Black figures from sports (Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph), music (Chuck Berry, Leontyne Price), show business (Sidney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey), literature (James Baldwin, Toni Morrison), and other fields.

The cumulative message is inspiring. But as the museum’s creators intended, one is reminded, too, that their achievements rest upon the courage and sacrifice of millions who preceded them.

So let the debate continue over how best to teach Black history and its relevance for all communities, ours included. It is a vital part of American history and culture and deserves ongoing study. With another Black History Month in the history books, though, a good starting point might be an uncomfortable elevator ride downward.

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