African American history is American history—and African history. Not giving attention to African history is an erasure of vital parts of African American history. In the classroom, we need to engage with Africans’ lives before the horrors of capture, the Middle Passage, and transatlantic slavery. Africans arrived, not as blank slates, but rich with many histories, cultures, languages, and knowledges.
Teachers can engage students with Africans’ lives and everything they brought to the Americas, as well as examine what was ruptured and erased. This is a practice of reparation and rekindling cultural and historical connections with the African continent.
RETHINKING AFRICA AS PART OF AMERICAN HISTORY
This kind of teaching is important because there are three patterns in the curriculum whereby Africa and Africans are often omitted, silenced, or distorted. Omission is when Africans and themes about Africa are absent altogether. Silencing occurs when the continent is represented, but only partially, generally, and in token and superficial ways. And distortion of the curriculum touches upon Africa in geography but never the immense diversity of African societies, cultures, and histories.
In the early grades, students are often given a brief look at a country, and then the continent is never revisited. In middle and high school, there is an examination of ancient Egypt and slavery but nothing else. When Africa is distorted, it means that Africa is represented inaccurately through themes that perpetuate negative ideas about the continent as being poor, dysfunctional, and in need of help. To resist omissions, silencing, and distortions of Africans and Africa in the curriculum, consider the following easy approaches and resources to celebrate Black history.
Adopt a people-first approach to African history. Teach about Africa through the lives, voices, and experiences of Africans. To do so, create learning goals and essential questions that put Africans at the center of your lessons, such as this excellent framework from Knarrative. Seek out African authors when you choose texts. There is a tremendous corpus of children and youth books available about Africa, many from African authors.
If you are going to teach about a country, instead of going through landscapes before getting to the human story, teach about people’s activities in these geographies and why their actions matter. Use the vast set of astounding art from African and African diasporic artists. Find inspiration in this gallery of young Africans, to always keep your eye on the responsibility that we have as educators to humanize the continent and render the lives of its people with respect and dignity and by teaching.
Teach students about Africa broadly and deeply. There is an extraordinary richness to what we can teach about African history. Teach about the iron technologies that humans developed in West Africa as early as the eighth century BCE. The Sahel used innovative building techniques to maintain and sustain adobe-type constructions. Massive empires that amassed enormous riches formed throughout the continent for millennia. One of the oldest universities in the world, Al Qarawiyyeen in Fez, is African, and priceless books and manuscripts are housed in the libraries of Timbuktu.
Turn up the volume so that Africa is heard loud and clear across the curriculum. In social studies, many resources on African history and geography are available. Engage with Africa in other subjects. In math and sciences, Africa can have a central place. The oldest mathematical artifact ever found, the Lebombo bone, is African; the continent has been the site of astounding innovation, from building pyramids in Egypt to the Great Zimbabwe medieval city. There are myriad ways to emphasize Africa in world language classes. Consult with National Resource Centers on Africa to gain access to free lessons and resources.
If you teach about enslavement, lead with the lives and stories of Africans in the Americas. Consider including some of the following people in your discussions: Olaudah Equiano, Onesimus, and the voices of early West African Muslims in the U.S. such as Omar Ibn Said, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, Abdul Rahman, and Ibrahima Sori.
Cultivate the practices of scrutiny and discernment. Be aware that much of the growing body of material available on the internet is not always necessarily correct. Scrutinize your sources. For example, the educational world has come to know 13th-century ruler Mansa Musa as “the richest man alive,” thanks to recent educational videos that describe his trip to Mecca, when he gave so much gold away that he caused local currencies to be devalued. However, Mansa Musa is but one emperor in a long lineage of emperors of the ancient kingdom of Mali. Sunjata, his great-uncle, is equally as important (he formed one of the first constitutions in the world at Kouroukan Fouga, a few years after the Magna Carta).
Use the Gall-Peters map instead of the Mercator map and teach students about how big Africa is so that they understand that maps are not neutral and instead represent distinct perspectives. Resist the old, tired, and racist tropes that frame Africa as a place of value only for its wildlife. Carefully assess your materials using this guide.
If you are going to teach about problems in Africa—as anywhere else in the world—always counterbalance them with similar problems in your students’ own contexts. Why teach about water-access issues in Africa without teaching about water-access issues in Detroit? Africa has for centuries borne an unequally large weight of being represented as problem-ridden. Turn that story on its head to show that whatever happens there also happens here.
During Black History Month and beyond, teachers need to start the clock before 1619, the arrival of the first Africans in the Americas, to celebrate Africans’ lives. This creates affirming spaces for African American students; contributes to a people-centered, deep, interdisciplinary, and accurate curriculum for all; and celebrates our cultural and historical connections with the African continent.