As the nation confronts anti-black violence, Newark is revamping its black history curriculum

The roots of recent police violence against black Americans stretch all the way back to slavery, yet many students are never taught that history.

In Newark, that may soon change. The city school system is creating a new curriculum centered on African American history that will teach students not only how the country has oppressed black people, but also how black Americans helped build this nation through their labor, artistry, and ongoing struggle for equality.

The new teaching materials, which the district has been working on for months, could provide some historical context for the latest acts of police violence, including the killing of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man whose death last month in police custody ignited widespread protests. It could also help students understand how structural racism contributes to the health disparities that have made black Americans, along with Latino and indigenous people, especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“The treatment of African Americans, their contributions, the brutality against them — it’s intricately woven into American history,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP. “All Americans need to know that.”

Newark advocates have long demanded that schools devote more class time to African American studies, arguing that it is vital for all students’ understanding of U.S. history and for black students’ pride in their heritage. The district has previously created teaching guides about African American history, but critics say they were often ignored or relegated to standalone courses rather than integrated into all social studies classes. 

Devon Corry, a senior at University High School, said teachers tend to cover the same material year after year, including the basics of slavery and civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

“You get tired of hearing it every year,” he said. “Sometimes you feel like you can beat teachers to the end of their sentences.”

Scheduled to roll out in schools this September, the new materials will include social studies and literature lessons for students from kindergarten through high school. The district has provided few details about the content, but two sample lessons focus on the civil rights movement and the fight to desegregate schools.

After years of pushing Newark and other districts to teach students a more comprehensive account of black history, advocates have high expectations for the new curriculum.

“There’s a need to be honest, truthful, and accurate and not sugarcoat things,” said Smith-Gregory. “We will be monitoring it and looking at it very closely.”

The new curriculum stems from the state’s 2002 Amistad law, named in honor of enslaved Africans who overthrew the crew of the Amistad slave ship in 1839. One of the first of its kind in the country, New Jersey’s law mandated that schools teach about the African slave trade, slavery in the United States, and the “triumphs of African Americans and their significant contributions to the development of this country.” It also established a commission to survey school textbooks and provide training and curriculum guidelines on African American history, though each district chooses its own curriculums.

But in the years since the law’s passage, critics have complained that it has been unevenly enacted. They say the state has not done enough to ensure local school boards adopt curriculums that include in-depth African American history, and that many teachers lack training in that history and don’t know how to properly discuss racial issues and anti-black racism with students.

“I hear from a lot of our teachers that nobody has ever taught us,” said William Payne, the former state lawmaker who cosponsored the Amistad bill. He added that limited state oversight has also been a problem: “There hasn’t been sufficient emphasis placed on the local boards of education that this is the law and every single school district must begin to teach this.”

The Amistad commission, which is embedded within the state education department, has taken steps to ensure more schools teach African American history and accomplishments. It created an online social studies curriculum guide with model lessons and hosts statewide and district-level workshops for educators.

Lillie Johnson Edwards, a professor of history and African-American studies who was on the commission from 2002 until this January, said the commission has worked hard to equip teachers with the necessary resources and training. Yet many of her Drew University students still arrive with only a limited grasp of African American history, suggesting schools still have a long way to go in teaching that material.

“I can’t tell you the number of times per week where we’re covering some topic and these students from New Jersey say, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t know this already,’ ” she said in an interview in March. “They know that they have missed something in their own education.”

Recently, there have been several moves to strengthen and expand Amistad-related work. In November, the state teachers union announced a new Amistad Journey program to send educators to historical sites in the U.S. and Africa related to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. State lawmakers proposed a bill to increase funding for the Amistad commission and expand the scope of material students learn and “emphasize the personal responsibility of each citizen to fight racism.” Gov. Phil Murphy also proposed boosting the commission’s budget for next fiscal year by nearly 50% to $234,000.

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated those efforts. It is unclear whether the first group of educators will visit historical sites this summer as planned. (A New Jersey Education Association spokesman did not immediately respond to questions.) The state senate passed the new Amistad bill in March, but the assembly has yet to vote on it. And the Murphy administration last month axed the increase to the Amistad commission’s budget, which was $159,000 this fiscal year, as part of a slate of cuts forced by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Still, at least one key effort remains in effect: a new addition to the state system for evaluating school districts that will deduct points for failing to adhere to the Amistad law.

“The days of this being optional for districts in the state of New Jersey are no longer,” said former Newark school board member Reginald Bledsoe at a meeting in December.

Superintendent Roger León has promised to reinvigorate the teaching of African American and Latino history and train district employees on culturally responsive practices that celebrate students’ backgrounds. Last year, the school board purchased new textbooks that emphasize diversity.

This school year, the district recruited teachers to help write the new African American history curriculum. Bashir Muhammad Akinyele is one of those teachers.

He attended Newark schools but learned little African American history until a college professor gave him a copy of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” the autobiography of the abolitionist leader who began his life in bondage. The book sparked a lifelong interest in black studies and set Akinyele on the path to becoming a teacher.

“That’s why I’m so passionate about black studies,” he said. “It saved my life.”

For the past 17 years, he has taught history and black studies at Weequahic High School, where his classroom is adorned with posters of Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, and black inventors.

He believes the new curriculum will instill pride in black students as they learn about ancient African civilizations and black freedom struggles that have pushed “America to live up to its democratic ideals,” he said. And he is convinced it will empower all students to one day dismantle the racist institutions that have cut short so many black lives.

“We’re trying to inspire our young people to become the next leaders so they can make society better than the way we left it,” he said, “so that we will have no more Eric Garners, no more Tamir Rices, no more Mike Browns, no more Sandra Blands, and no more George Floyds.”

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