How do we teach Black history in Tennessee without telling students hard truths? | Opinion

·4 min read

It is certainly true that under Tennessee law you can teach something that our educational authorities call “Black history.”

You can, for example, undoubtedly put a picture of Malcolm X in a textbook, and your textbook will be quite favorably judged should you caption that picture “apostle of violence,” but under the education laws of the state of Tennessee, should you discuss in a K-12 school Malcolm’s thinking, should you talk about how Malcolm understood America, or should you try to explore Malcolm’s understandings of what being Black or being white in America means, you will lose your job or your school district will lose state funding.

Because to discuss Malcolm’s thinking is to tell some very hard and ugly truths about American realities, truths that our political leaders do not want our young people – especially our young white people – to hear.

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Malcolm X told the truth of how Black people lived

The popular media of Malcolm’s day, for example, labeled Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, together with Malcolm as the NOI’s chief spokesman, “preachers of hate.”

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X wait for a news conference on March 26, 1964.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X wait for a news conference on March 26, 1964.

In a Tennessee high school today, to give Malcolm’s response to that charge would be illegal. “Who taught them [Black people] to hate the texture of their hair, so much that they’ll put lye on it?” asked Malcolm. “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind?

"Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to, so much so that you don’t want to be around each other? No, before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God gave you.”

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Malcolm’s unique authority – the reason Black people loved him – James Baldwin tells us, stems from the fact that Malcolm told the raw truth about the lives Black people actually lived in America, and told that truth when no other Black leader did so. Malcolm’s text always centered on the bitter truth of the daily humiliations Black people suffered at the hands of white people: on the criminal conduct of the avaricious landlord who took rent money month after month and year after year, even as he left unrepaired leaky plumbing in his slum buildings that might send raw sewage crashing down through rotted-out floors, ceilings and walls; even as furnaces failed again and again on the coldest winter days; and even as rats and roaches played side by side with the ghetto’s children in these apartments.

Malcolm told the truth about the cops who patrolled and brutalized Black communities and about the ghetto merchants who sold rotten meat and rotten vegetables at prices higher than those paid for better quality food in nearby white neighborhoods.

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Leaders must condemn white supremacy

Of course, “the white man” – Malcolm’s shorthand for America’s white supremacist society – has been the real preacher of hate through the entirety of American history. And it was this same “white man” who took the rent or the grocery money home to his white suburban community and paid taxes there on that money to construct fine new schools for his white children.

David Barber
David Barber

And it was this same white man who patrolled the ghetto streets, brutalized the ghetto’s people and took home his cut of the money rackets made selling dope and women and numbers in the ghetto.

To discuss these obvious truths in a Tennessee K-12 classroom, however, is to raise disquieting and discomforting thoughts for our white students, never mind that such truths affirm the dignity and resilience of Black people in American history.

More and more I am coming to the conclusion that we have only one real American history – Black history. When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or our own Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee’s legislature enact laws to prevent teaching that history, they are defending white supremacy.

White supremacy needs ignorance to survive. We are a white supremacist society; our society continually functions to produce racial inequality. We have only one way of combatting this white supremacy: education in the truth of American history, Black history.

Tennesseans of good will must protest our state’s laws that prevent the teaching of Black history, and we must call on all our educational leaders in the state to openly condemn these white supremacist laws.

David Barber is a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Martin.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: How do we teach Black history without telling students hard truths?