Publication Date

December 15, 2021

Perspectives Section

From the President

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


African American, Current Events in Historical Context

James H. Sweet

I started first grade in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1973. Two years earlier, the US Supreme Court’s decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education enforced racial integration in public schools through mandatory busing. As a six-year-old, I was oblivious to the political rancor that surrounded the decision. From elementary school through my high school graduation, roughly 40 percent of my classmates were African American, with one or two Chinese, Filipino, Indian, and Mexican students in most classes.

More importantly, I grew up with African American role models—principals, teachers, counselors, and coaches. My fourth-grade teacher, Otelia Borden, challenged me intellectually every day and pushed me to think about issues of racial, gender, and class equality, without ever naming them as such. She was the best teacher I ever had, setting norms for my ideas about education when I was just nine years old. From seventh to twelfth grade, I had nearly a dozen Black teachers—in English, biology, chemistry (but sadly not history!). In short, I grew up with the expectation that my intellectual worlds would be racially and socially diverse. When I reached college, I learned how segregated education could be. This awakened my historical and political consciousness on the issues that became my life’s work, but the die had been cast much earlier. Attending Charlotte public schools in the 1970s and 1980s shaped everything I would become, both personally and professionally.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System began dismantling mandatory busing in 1992, and the system of “school choice” that eventually replaced it resegregated Charlotte’s schools. The elementary school I attended in the 1970s is now 85 percent Latino and 9 percent African American. Charlotte is not alone in school resegregation. Despite the fact that white children are no longer a majority among school-age kids in America, the typical white student attends a school where 69 percent of their classmates are also white. This demography is also reflected in those who teach these white children. Today, I can ask a University of Wisconsin–Madison history class of one hundred undergraduate students how many of them ever had a teacher other than a white teacher for their entire K–12 years, and only five or six students will raise their hands. This stuns me. But it also reminds me how privileged I was to learn from such a broad diversity of peers and mentors.

Over the past two years, more than half of American states have introduced legislation or taken other steps that would restrict teaching the history of racism in public schools. Lawmakers and parents argue that teaching these “divisive concepts” provokes guilt and trauma in young learners, especially white children. Often lost in these debates is the stark demographic reality that whatever is being taught to white students is in public schools where, on average, teachers are almost exclusively white and more than two-thirds of their classmates are white. How could white students feel traumatized in such racially homogenous social environments?

Attending Charlotte public schools shaped everything I would become.

Teaching the histories of racism, sexism, and homophobia is not divisive; it is unifying, especially in a time when we are becoming ever more segregated. Those trafficking in white fear conveniently ignore that the country systematically excluded Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos for most of its history. For African Americans, these exclusions took various legal forms, from slavery to disfranchisement, Jim Crow to redlining. These were not divisive “concepts” that hurt students’ feelings at school. They were legal boundaries that prevented African Americans from enjoying full citizenship. The resegregation of public schools in places like Charlotte was a continuation of that legal tradition of exclusion.

Ironically, critics of “divisive concepts” fail to recognize the implicit embrace of the nation in frameworks like critical race theory. To criticize the political and legal history of the nation as racist is an overture for change. It is not a prelude to treason or secession. As vibrant and raucous as ethnic studies have been over the past 50 years, they have been nothing if not loyal to the promise of the nation. The stubborn insistence on minority inclusion in the face of systematic exclusion is a testament to an extraordinary, if wary, patriotism.

To be clear, some scholars have called for separate concepts, methods, and modes of analysis. Long before the 1619 Project, African American historians including Sterling Stuckey, Colin Palmer, and Michael Gomez outlined new chronological watersheds and topical approaches that focused on the history of African Americans as a people, rather than as members of a nation-state. The logic of such approaches is entirely sound. The history of a people defined as property, denied basic human rights, and excluded from full citizenship could never be a duplicate history of the nation and those who controlled it. African Americans were more than mere supporting actors in the making of “colonial,” “revolutionary,” and “antebellum” US histories. They were agents of their own internal histories and politics. Understanding these histories is fundamental not only to African Americans as an “identity group” but also to our conceptions of the nation.

To use 1619 as an example, historians disagree on how to characterize the first “20 and odd” Africans who arrived in Jamestown. Some view them as sharing far more in common with other Angolans in the Americas than with their English enslavers. These scholars frame Jamestown as just one node in the shared histories of roughly 250,000 Angolans who arrived in Latin America and the Caribbean between 1600 and 1625. Others characterize the Jamestown Africans as the first of thousands of diverse Africans who followed in the first century of slavery in British North America, guided culturally and politically by their African pasts. It was not until around 1730 that North America’s African population began to reproduce a Creole African American population. Finally, there are scholars who, like Nikole Hannah-Jones, view the Jamestown Africans as incipient Americans. The 1619 Project characterizes the experiences of those first Africans as “the beginning of American slavery.”

African Americans were agents of their own internal histories and politics.

Critics lambasted Hannah-Jones for the provocative claim that 1619 is the true beginning of American history. One can quibble with her reduction of American history to Anglo-American history (Spanish settlers owned African slaves in Florida in the 16th century). However, 1619 is widely accepted by scholars as the start of slavery in British North America. And Hannah-Jones’s assertion of 1619 as the beginning of “American” history, as opposed to 1776, is in accordance with ongoing debates over the meanings of particular moments in defining the histories of nations, peoples, eras, and so on. This is precisely the kind of interpretive work historians do.

Hannah-Jones’s interpretation is a radical act of national unification, a claim on the nation’s history that defies African American exclusion. Throughout her essay, Hannah-Jones foregrounds her roots in rural Iowa, her military veteran father, and even her allegiance to the American flag. On the question of the flag, Hannah-Jones lingers, recalling her youthful embarrassment at her father’s insistence on flying the stars and stripes. Only through historical study does she recognize her father’s patriotism as a form of racial claims-making. For Milton Hannah, flying the flag was an invitation to recognize African American contributions to building the nation, just like his daughter’s essay. Rather than accept her invitation, Hannah-Jones’s detractors derisively dismiss her as sowing division. One wonders whether those same critics would see her father’s flag flying as driven by divisive concepts. If so, the nation is in a perilous state that even public schools probably cannot fix.

To sum up, I’ll return to Ms. Borden’s fourth-grade classroom. Like many children, we started every day with the Pledge of Allegiance. A small American flag stood above one corner of the blackboard, mostly unnoticed except during our school-wide morning routine. After the bell rang, we all stood, put our hands over our hearts, and recited the pledge. Most of us did so with appropriate reverence, but as the year wore on, a handful of kids started opting out, either sleeping or sitting quietly. As she did every morning, Ms. Borden stood at the front of the room, hands clasped, head bowed, eyes closed. When I finally got up the courage to ask why she let kids skip the pledge, she smiled at me patiently and said, “Not everyone sees the flag the same way.” Ms. Borden then put her arm around me, ushered me back to my desk, and encouraged me to keep grinding on my nine-times tables.

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James H. Sweet
James H. Sweet

University of Wisconsin-Madison