During my nearly two decades of working as an African-American Studies Professor, I have learned myriad lessons regarding the educational process and its impact upon the minds, imagination, aspirations, and psyche of Black people; one of the most obvious and far-reaching lessons is found in the unfortunate reality that African-Americans are bereft of any understanding of their familial history. Although many outside of our community will protest this fact, the unfortunate reality is that the typical African-American is better versed in the history of other races than his own; engagement in the K-16 American educational institutions and its curriculum ensure the continuation of this reality.
It is this reality that forces me to brace myself for the first day of each semester; I already know that it will be a day that a new class of students will invariably reveal their ignorance of and lack of desire to engage African-American History. Considering that I am currently employed at a Historically Black University, one would expect my students to be excited at the prospect of reading Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart or Alex Haley’s classic monograph, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Unfortunately, you would be disappointed as students express their resistance to both tomes via a groan of disapproval. Often a student will assume the persona of a modern-day Simon Cyrene, the figure who carried Jesus cross for him, and foolishly challenge my selection of The Autobiography of Malcolm X thinking that his refusal to read a book about a ‘Black Moslem’ earns him a crown in Heaven.
Considering that such antics are repeated every semester, I am prepared to address them via a simple question that illuminates the flaws found within their prior educational experience, particularly as it deals with their exposure to African-Americans. The question is a relatively mundane simple one of, “How many of you have read Anne Frank?” Invariably, every hand in the cavernous auditorium rises. I then ask the predominantly Black audience; “Now which of these texts, The Diary of Anne Frank or The Autobiography of Malcolm X do you think is more applicable to your life? The story of a Jewish girl hiding in a closet or the one that follows the life of Black man in America who to this day is revered by your people?” Nary is a word of protest uttered by my students.
I take this momentary pause to re-engage the local Simon Cyrene, who invariably behaves as if my selection of The Autobiography of Malcolm X is part of a large plan to proselytize to Christians and put them on the highway to hell, and ask if he has read Anne Frank’s story. He answers affirmatively. I then query, “So I am to take it that you are Jewish?” Driving home the point that it is not Malcolm X’s religious background that he has a problem with, if it were, he would likewise have protested reading a text revolving around a Jewish girl; truthfully, one of the primary catalyst to my students resistance to engaging The Autobiography of Malcolm X is that they have learned to loathe and discount African-Americans; their attitude relates a deep disdain that pivots upon the question of what have their people ever contributed to society. Although it is often not commented upon, it is possible for African-Americans to hate themselves with the same zeal that members of the Klu Klux Klan possess. In fact, the appearance of such bias is predictable considering that both groups have similar limited exposure to African-American historical contributions and contemporary worth.
I have learned that there are certain statements that must be forthrightly stated when discussing matters such as this, so I am forthrightly stating that I have no problem with students reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I personally considered the text to be significant enough to have visited the location that inspired the story. Hence, you will never find me refuting that Anne Frank’s story is an indispensable part of Human history; however, I am educated enough to recognize that such recognition is also due to African-Americans stories as well, particularly The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
My primary issue in regards to this matter flows from an understanding of education’s impact upon the mind. Considering that humans are social beings, meaning that we learned everything that we “know” through either personal experience or the lessons of others, our entire reality is determined by the teachings of others. Put simply, the education that we receive goes a great deal toward us making sense of the world. Hence, the decision of what type of curriculum should be dispensed in the process of molding the minds of Americans in our K-16 educational centers should not be taken lightly.
Unfortunately, those who are deciding curriculum offerings for American school children were raised in a system that showed extreme disdain for African-Americans, hence, it is only natural that they would continue that tradition; put simply, they know no other way to be. If permitted, I would love to ask the committees and decision makers that determine the worth of Anne Frank’s story and the worthlessness of The Autobiography of Malcolm X the following questions.
A. What is your rationale for including the diary of Anne Frank on the must read list and not The Autobiography of Malcolm X?
B. Why do you think that Anne Frank’s story is more valuable than Malcolm X’s?
C. What impact do you think that a K-16 educational experience that is devoid of any African-American books has upon the minds of students regardless of their racial identity or ethnic background?
D. What does it mean when school districts fail to include any classic stories that center upon African-Americans or the African-American experience?
Although the consequences of African-Americans not learning their history is obvious: low self-esteem, lack of knowledge of self, and being turned off from the discipline of history, if not the entire educational experience in its totality. African-American children are not the only population damaged when the African-American story is left out of the standard American History/Social Studies curriculum; it damages each child, regardless of racial identity in the following ways:
A. It allows for the development of woeful ignorance in regards to African- Americans and their historical experience.
B. Gives the impression that persons of African descent have never contributed anything to society; thereby, allowing for racism to grow like a wildfire.
C. The lack of any understanding of the African-American experience or contributions throughout the annals of time severely taints any racial discussions.
It is out of a desperate desire to cease the seemingly never-ending racial animosity between groups that I call for those who select text to be shared with American school children, regardless of their racial/ethnic identity, to consider the stories of myriad races and groups. History clearly dictates that the only weapon we have against ignorance is education. Considering such truth, it is long overdue for American children, including African-American children, to have access to classic African-American texts and authors, it is truly the only weapon that we have against racial animosity and angst in the new millennium.