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When African history gets the silent treatment in American schools

Jean-Baptise Pointe DuSable
I’m not African-American. I’m a Moor.

He just kept repeating these lines, and it was starting to get on my nerves. No matter what I asked him, his response still revolved around this.

“I don’t need a license. I’m a Moor. I shouldn’t have to pay rent. I’m a Moor. I shouldn’t have to buy a house. I’m a Moor.”

If I hadn’t been so smitten with him as a child and my parents didn’t already like him, I wouldn’t have given him a shred of attention. But my childhood crush had grown up, watched some YouTube videos and was in full-fledged “woke” mode in his 30s.

Meanwhile I had no idea what a Moor was. According to National Geographic, a Moor “came to mean anyone who was Muslim or had dark skin.” However, it was reportedly derived from the Latin word “Maurus,” which describes Berbers and other people from the ancient Roman province of Mauretania (now North Africa).

We were both born and raised in Chicago. While I respected his enthusiasm about his African origins, all I kept thinking was, “You have absolutely no idea where your ancestors are from.”

So I challenged him. “Can you point to five countries on a map of Africa right now?”

He scowled at me. What he didn’t realize was he could’ve easily one-upped me by asking me the same exact question. I definitely could not confidently label five countries in the Motherland either. Still, he didn’t let that comment slide too long before he had a retort.

“You love to point out how your elementary school taught black history,” he said. “But public schools act like black people’s history started with slavery. Like kings and queens and everyday people didn’t exist before then.”

I paused. He wasn’t wrong. I proudly boast about reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” in sixth grade and trotting off on a field trip to see the movie starring Denzel Washington. My elementary school teachers also required that we read “Roots” and watched the movie series.

While other states are rewriting their history and re-labeling slaves as “workers,” I was surrounded by African-American instructors who were calling “b.s.” on Columbus Day and proudly discussing the ignored parts of black history. However, should I be questioning the “ignored” part now?


Is African history ignored or just overlooked in American public schools?

Even in my 30s, I simply cannot act like I know a lot about Africa. Interestingly, almost all of my education about Africa has come from pen pals (out of 50, one was from Ghana); interviewees (as an entertainment reporter, I repeatedly interviewed a Detroit rapper who incorporated his Ethiopian background into his music and performances); and the two years I spent at a predominantly white university (PWI). While there were a couple of African students who I knew from my alma mater, a historically black college and university (HBCU), ironically the PWI had way more African students. I learned more about Africa from socializing than I ever did in a classroom.

OK, maybe you could count the occasional trip to Chicago’s DuSable Museum as part of “African” history. But an hour-long trip to a museum pales in comparison to a semester-long history class specializing in American Studies.

Meanwhile, at my PWI, I went out of my way to make Spanish my minor (eight years of language courses) and even took a Latin American Women Writers course to learn more about Latin America. African history? Not so much.


Why does African-American history not incorporate African history more often?

I almost got expelled for creating a rivalry between myself and the English department of my PWI for not incorporating more African-American writers into the courses. I challenged the entire English department all the way to meeting with the dean of my first university. I even wrote letters to the school paper. And the primary reason I did so was because African-American history and literature were “normal” to me. I couldn’t believe a university had the audacity to not teach it.

And I may as well have spoken to a brick wall if I bothered to challenge that same English department to talk about African history, too. Quite frankly, I’m not sure my elementary school teachers could’ve done so either. You can’t teach something you don’t know either.

Quite frankly, far too many African-American students still don’t have the opportunities I had to learn a sizable amount of African-American history as a child. By the time they hit high school and standardized tests are beaten over their heads, they’re just trying to graduate.

We’re not necessarily dodging African history courses. There just weren’t any to take.


What if schools required Africa to be a focus area in American history classes?

What if we included African history more in our world history courses? Or, what if we included African history in our African-American history courses? And why don’t we?

I don’t have a good answer for that. Just as my now-ex challenged me, I was strutting around and boasting about how my school taught me so much about the Civil Rights Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Wall Street and the Black Panthers. If it wasn’t these topics, it was slavery.

But if all of these admirable groups could build neighborhoods, create businesses, become entrepreneurs, work together as families, and fight for their rights and accomplishments within their respective communities, why did I not have the same level of curiosity about life before Portugal initiated the African slave trade in the 1400s? I cannot say for sure.

I was elated to be introduced to African History books for kids from Our Ancestories. It was the kind of reading material I wish would’ve been incorporated in my “win a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut” book reading school contests. I won so many personal pan pizzas just from reading books about all types of topics. Somehow though, African history just didn’t come up (other than the repeated reminders that “We’re all from Africa”).


The dangers of ignorance about a culture or location

As with any topic (be it religion, race, culture or location), ignorance can make people create an idea of what they think a place is like. When speaking to some peers as an adult, an embarrassing amount regard Africa as a place full of slums, poor people, flies near kids’ eyes and no food. Are there places in this continent that have these problems? Yes. But even South African comedic talk show host Trevor Noah turned his nose up at seeing UNICEF  commercials with these depictions, inquiring, “Where is that? Cleveland?

I was honestly shocked when a past African-American co-worker of mine, who travels the world multiple times a year (pre-COVID), told me she’d never been to Africa. I just assumed she had. Instead she vehemently shook her head and said she wouldn’t go anywhere that required vaccination shots. I reminded her that in the U.S., public school kids were required to get vaccinations every year before returning to school. So what’s the difference? But her imagination had created a scenario in her mind about what Africa was “really like,” and there was not much I could do to prove her wrong.

Like me, she wasn’t poorly educated. I’d gone to graduate school and she already held her master’s degree. We both come from middle-income families and have our feet firmly placed into our respective careers. But even for well-educated people within the black community, there can be a disconnect.

So how do we fix it? As an adult, there is absolutely nothing stopping me from being self-taught about African regions. The same way that I can run off a list of Harlem Renaissance writers and Civil Rights activists, it is really up to me to be able to speak with the same level of confidence about African history. But it helps to teach kids early and often. If done correctly, they can then grow up to teach their own kids. Then those kids become adults to teach their kids. Rinse and repeat. All it really takes is a thirst to learn in the first place.

Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Shamontiel L. Vaughn. In the featured Flickr image, the bust of Jean Baptiste DuSable (the first permanent settler in Chicago) was photographed by John W. Iwanski.

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