As many in this nation celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. last week, I wanted to share his quotes that are not the typical “content of their character” quotes. Without fail, despite the vast amount of work produced by Dr. King, many White people have reduced his life and everything that he stood for to that one sentence, often because that sentence makes them feel good and does not challenge them. They have manipulated and distorted that quote so much that they use it to explain away racism and all of the atrocities that have led us to today as if to say, “Let us forget the past 400+ years and start judging people on their character.” That is really rich to say that when every system that exists in this nation is rooted in race and racism, which White people hold up.
Pretending as if the last 400 years didn’t happen is not how we move towards reshaping this nation. That is not how life works. It is like when you go to the doctor. If you have a good doctor, they don’t just examine you for what is going on in your body today. They ask you about your lifestyle and your medical history so that they can better ascertain and treat your condition today. To understand what is currently happening in this nation and make this nation better in the future, you cannot overlook centuries of injustice. Our country finds itself in this current condition because we have refused to look at our history and decided to do something different. Instead, there are people working overtime to remain ignorant with the goal of making sure every generation behind them remains just as ignorant.
I posted this quote by Dr. King on my Twitter feed last Monday, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn,” Almost immediately, the point of the quote was proven.
These are just some of the responses:
Even though Dr. King expressed these sentiments in his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, in 1967, it is apparent in 2023, his comment is still valid. Many White people believe they have nothing to learn about Black people and the History of Black people in this nation. Their view of Black people is limited to what they see on television and social media. It is even more limited because they are not taught much about African Americans in the school system.
Gerth writes, “One thing Jones said that caught my attention was that he could create a test that few, if any, white people in Louisville could pass. Jones claimed American education is “rigged,” essentially because our educational system was created by white people for white people. The point he was trying to make is that when white people create the curriculums and the standardized tests, they create them using the events and people and subjects that are important to white people. And that puts Black students — who grow up hearing of the heroes and events that were important to their parents, grandparents, pastors and other Black people important to them — at a disadvantage. So, I asked Jones to create that test for me.
I didn’t know what the test would include so I couldn’t really study for it.
He gave me an hour to take it with the rule being that I couldn’t use the internet or any other resources to help on the test. It was 25 questions and I needed to get 15 right – 60% – to pass. Easy-peasy. Right? Wrong. When I took Jones’ test, I was completely unprepared for the subject.”
Out of 25 questions, Gerth got 5 of them correct.
Let me be clear this is not an indictment on Gerth. Gerth, I consider a friend. However, this is to show basic things about Black history many white people don’t know. Why? Because they were never taught them. This nation treats Black History as if it is separate from American History. You can no more extract Black History from American History than eggs from a baked cake. Black people are embedded in the fabric of America. Every thread you pull, you are going to find a Black person. Try as they may, they cannot erase Black people from American History. The information isn’t hiding. It’s in books, articles, movies, documentaries, blogs, talks, social media feeds, etc. However, as a person, YOU have to make the EFFORT to learn this information. Our school systems must make an effort to teach this information and teach it truthfully. But somehow, the narrative in this country is that learning about Black people is wrong. However, Black people are invariably taught about White people.
Young Black people learn about your heroes, watch your movies, and read your books. Black students are educated by White teachers who teach through a White lens, from books written by White people. In the most formative years of our lives, Black students are taught almost nothing but whiteness in the school system. While a person like Christopher Columbus was involved in some of the worst crimes against humanity, our schools paint him as a lone traveler venturing out to discover the Americas. When students are taught about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, it is limited to February and restricted to his I Have A Dream Speech. When students are taught about Rosa Parks, she is presented as an elderly Black woman who was so tired she refused to get out of her seat when Rosa said, “I was tired of giving in.” If I was to ask students about Lille Mae Bradford, Claudette Colvin, or Irene Morgan, would they know that these were also Black women who refused to give up their seats on a bus before Rosa Parks?
Understand, it is one thing not knowing something. (No one knows everything. We ALL should have a spirit of wanting to learn.) But what I see happening is a sincere commitment, desire, and stringent fight, even to the point of passing laws, to remain ignorant and to make sure the next generation is just as ignorant as this one.
For instance, Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, has rejected a new advanced placement course in African American studies from being taught on high school campuses. He argues that the course violates state law and “lacks educational value.” Why would Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, reject a new advanced placement course in African American studies? Other AP classes about language and culture are taught in Florida. Why single out this AP class about African American History?
While there may be many reasons, I would like just to point out three reasons why I believe the AP class was rejected:
- When you learn about Black people beyond the stereotypes you have been taught from your parents, TV, social media, etc., it rejects every narrative that White people have told about Black people.
- When you learn Black History, you learn about the atrocities that White people committed throughout history. White people have always been painted as the victor, but the twist is that you find out that many White people are the villain in the story of America. It turns many things you have learned about White people throughout history upside down and forces you to ask challenging questions. If Black people have not been the villain, then who is?
- When people know better, there is an expectation that they should do better. For White people to fully embrace the history of Black people in America, it is a day of reckoning they do not want to face because it challenges them to do something different. And why do anything different when every system is built to favor White people? Learning would be dismantling those systems of injustice, and instead of doing that work, they are content to rest in a bed of ignorance.
Until White people fully admit that they know nothing or very little about Black people and then MAKE THE EFFORT TO LEARN and push back against these laws that are in favor of young people remaining ignorant, nothing will change. This isn’t just an issue for politicians to address. The change starts with you. When you think about your life, how many times do you interact with Black people? When was the last time you sat down and had a conversation with a Black person, not just about race, but about anything? When was the last time you read a book authored by a Black person? When was the last time you watched a movie or television show about a Black person that wasn’t centered around Black trauma? When was the last time you watched a documentary to educate yourself on Black History? Are you making an effort to learn Black history? Are you making sure your children and/or grandchildren are learning about Black people throughout history? As Dr. King said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Do not be so arrogant you believe that you have nothing to learn but open yourself up to the possibility that you have everything to learn.
UPDATE January 25, 2023 Here is the link the AP African American Studies Syllabus.