Skip to contents

How to Combat the Whitewashing of Black Studies

Scholars share book recommendations they think are critical for building a foundation in African American history.

Protesters asking for the teaching of Black history in state schools demonstrated last year at the state Capitol in Richmond, Virginia. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

The backlash to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ assault on Black history and the release of the Florida Board of Education’s new teaching standards has been swift — but with the new school year starting this month, enraged parents and educators may not have much of a choice in the classroom.

The requirement that middle school students learn “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied to their personal benefit” mortified even other Republicans. The board also mandated that the high school curriculum for the 1920 Ocoee, Florida, Election Day Massacre include “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.” The new standards, the director of communications for the board insisted, incorporate “all components of African American history: the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

“It’s disgusting to use children as pawns in their adult scheme,” teacher Crystal Etienne told the Miami Herald. She called the changes an “indoctrination” into “white, Christian nationalism,” adding, “They feel like if you’re teaching the bad, it somehow takes away from the good and it doesn’t. If I’m not allowed to teach the evolution of the country and the changes that have been made, what am I doing?”

The new set of standards comes just months after the governor’s rejection of an Advanced Placement course, which delves into 400 years of Black people’s contributions to literature, politics, science, and other aspects of American life, according to the program description. Sixty high schools nationwide were participating in the pilot version of the course. 

DeSantis’ administration had called the content “inexplicably contrary to Florida law.” The College Board released a statement in February that condemned the state’s ban, but the board also released a revised course curriculum, removing contemporary authors and topics such as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ life, and the Black feminist movement.

Jettisoning contemporary literature removes foundational Black studies texts, Stefan Bradley, a professor of Black Studies at Amherst College, told Capital B in February. In turn, it limits education on the lived experiences of Black people.

“When you talk about Black feminist theory, or you talk about any of those things, it’s fair game. There should never be a question of why we should learn about these things, because they’re occurring in the community,” he said. “What [the controversy is] talking about is who gets to be American and which of us deserves to be included in the American narrative — and Black people deserve to be in the American narrative.”

Efforts to restrict education about race and ethnicity stretch beyond Florida. States including Tennessee and Texas, for instance, also have enacted legislation that dramatically limits classroom instruction about a variety of identity categories. 

In 2018, a report from Learning for Justice, a Southern Poverty Law Center initiative that works directly with K-12 educators to teach about social justice, found that schools “are failing to teach the hard history of African enslavement.” Only 8% of high school seniors said that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War, and 58% of teachers reported that their textbooks were inadequate to properly teach about slavery. 

For that reason, supplementing your child’s education is often necessary to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Black history. Capital B continues to ask Black scholars to share what works they think are most critical for giving students a foundation in African American studies outside the classroom. Below are some of their top selections.

Anna Julia Cooper, Voice From The South (1892) — Anna Julia Cooper’s work provides an indispensable foundation for understanding Black feminism and Black women’s lives in the American South during the nineteenth century. — Keisha N. Blain, professor of Africana studies and history at Brown University. She’s also a columnist for MSNBC, a Guggenheim Fellow, and the author, most recently, of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. Her next book, Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy, will be published in February 2024.

W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935) — W. E. B. Du Bois’ influential work on Reconstruction boldly challenged the racist Dunning School of historians that had ignored Black voices in favor of a narrative of white victimhood during the Civil War and its aftermath. As politicians and legislators attempt to resurrect this idea in modern curricula, Du Bois’ work is an important model. — Blain

Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1970) Anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells created a model for investigative reporting, and her writings exemplify how to fight misinformation. Her campaign against lynching offers key lessons for today. — Blain

Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (2003) — Ella Baker was one of the foremothers of the Civil Rights Movement. Her ideas and vision guided the progress and development of the Black freedom struggle — and remain a source of inspiration for activists today. — Blain

Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck, eds., The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is (2010)— This collection of Fannie Lou Hamer’s speeches offers a look at one of the most dynamic leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in her own words. Reading them will electrify readers and provide a blueprint for future movement-building. — Blain

Malcolm X, Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (1965) — Still so relevant for understanding the ways Black men and women are treated as second-class citizens. What I love so much about this autobiography is that it humanizes Malcolm while explaining how white racism shaped his views. Malcolm’s evolution after his trip to Mecca shows how we all evolve with new information. — Dwonna Goldstone, director of the African American Studies Program at Texas State University

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861); Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) — Because Black history and slavery have been sanitized in an effort to — allegedly — placate the feelings of white students, all students should read Jacobs and Douglass. Both autobiographies detail the experiences of enslaved men and women, and the former also examines how enslaved women were subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation by white slaveholders. — Goldstone

James Baldwin, A Letter to My Nephew (1962) A Letter to My Nephew explores Baldwin’s thoughts about his nephew’s future in a country with a horrific history of racism. This piece is still so relevant today, as those in power continue to pass policies that restrict the teaching of Black history in this country. I mean, if we don’t know Black history, how can we explain why some groups have historically been left behind? — Goldstone

Other Recommendations

Nathaniel Norment Jr., The African American Studies Reader (2001) — A comprehensive list of essays and opinions by Black scholars on the foundation of African American studies. The book expands on the history of the discipline, how the curriculum should be taught, and the challenges of teaching African American studies, with a particular focus on higher education.

Abdul Alkalimat, The History of Black Studies (2021) — The author dives into the Black college student activism of the 1960s that led to the creation of Black studies courses across the country. He writes about Black studies as an intellectual history, a social movement, and an academic profession, and he charts how Black people established the field before it became institutionalized.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) — Du Bois weaves themes of race and religion throughout this work to share the economic, political, and social challenges Black people faced at the hands of white people around the beginning of the 20th century. The limitations placed on Black people as a result of the legacy of racism, sexism, and classism are still relevant to understanding U.S. society today.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) — In this novel, widely regarded as one of the most significant works of the 20th century, Hurston tackles the importance of gender roles, women’s rights, and self-discovery through the lens of the main character, a Black woman in her 30s who’s struggling to find her identity. The book grapples with the influence of Black culture on community, relationships, and U.S. society.

Capital B is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to uncovering important stories — like this one — about how Black people experience America today. As more and more important information disappears behind paywalls, it’s crucial that we keep our journalism accessible and free for all. But we can’t publish pieces like this without your help. If you support our mission, please consider becoming a member by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!