This article was recently written by Dr. Lawrence Burnley for students at Spokane Falls Community College.
Reading Beyond the Requirements:
A Black History Month Reflection
By Lawrence A. Q. Burnley, Ph.D.
Associate Vice President for Diversity and Intercultural Relations
Assistant Professor of History
In 1949, educational psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted an experiment with young African American children. They placed before these children two sets of dolls identically dressed. One set of dolls were black and the other dolls were white. The children were asked which dolls they liked best. The majority of the children chose the white dolls. When asked why they said the white dolls were “pretty,” “nice,” and “clean.” When asked why they did not select the black dolls the children said they were “dirty,” “ugly,” and “bad.” When asked which doll looked like them, all of the children pointed to the black dolls.
In 2005, a New York high school student, Kiri Davis, recreated the Clark experiment. Sadly, and shocking to many, the results were virtually the same.
While there were a number of historic socioeconomic and political factors that influenced the choices made by the children in these experiments their education, formal and informal, played a significant role. Formal education in our nation does not teach African Americans to love even encourage us to love ourselves. In fact schools generally do not require students of any background to study (thoroughly examine) the history, heritage, and culture of African or African American people. As a result as African Americans we are not taught or encouraged to know ourselves.
Ok, do I have your attention? I’ve just made a claim and you should, hopefully, challenge me to support this claim. I accept your challenge and invite you to take a short quiz. As students who are pursing post secondary education degrees at Spokane Falls Community College, you have completed a K-12 education. As a result it is safe to say that you are indeed “educated.” If we agree on this point, I invite you to take a look at two sets of names.
Set number one:
Ernest E. Just; Ida B. Wells; Marcus Garvey; Osei Tutu; Garrett Morgan; Bessie Coleman; Charles Drew; Madam C. J. Walker; Denmark Vesey; Fannie Lou Hamer; Henry Highland Garnett; Matthew Henson; Hatshepsut; Carter G. Woodson.
Set number two:
Al Capone; Christopher Columbus; George Custer; Bonnie and Clyde; Jessie James; Amelia Earhart; Wyatt Earp; John Dillinger; Sir Francis Drake; Calamity Jane.
Which set of names listed here are you most familiar to you? I hope I am wrong, but if you were raised in the United States and attend public or private schools in this country, my guess would be you are most familiar with the names in the second set of names and not very familiar at all with the names in the first set. Am I right? If so, why is this the case?
The second set of names consists of European or Euro-Americans (whites), many of whom were criminals, while others are known for playing a role in western expansionism which resulted in the forced removal of Native Americans from their land. The first list of names is that of African and African Americans who, under seemingly insurmountable odds, made major contributions to world and U.S. history. These are people whose achievements demonstrate the extraordinary intellectual and spiritual gifts which allowed them to use their inherent and innate genius to advance the progress of humankind. Take a moment to Google some of these heroes and heroines of history.
By now, if you haven’t done so before reading this article, you should be asking yourself a few questions. First, why has my formal education to this point failed to expose me (or require me) to study the people listed in the first set of names? Second, why was it important for me to at some point in my education to become familiar with the names in the second set? Thirdly, what impact on my sense of self, people of African descent, whites, and on the world at large has an education which omits information about the contributions of African and African American had on my thinking? How could such an education influence which dolls the black children selected in the Clark and Davis experiments?
In the classes on African American history I teach at Whitworth University, I ask my students three questions at the beginning of each semester: When you think of “Africa” what thoughts or images come to mind? What are the dominant themes, events, and historical figures come to mind for you in association with African American history? What or who in your lived experience has shaped and informed your responses to the first two questions?
A high percentage of the student’s responses to these questions are both sad and alarming and reflect the persistence and pervasiveness of long-held negative stereotypes and ignorance informed by both formal and informal modes of education that has and continues to demonize and distort Africa, its people, culture and history. The responses do not surprise me given the lack of “required” curriculum that fails to guide students through a process of critical examination and unlearning the volumes of misinformation they have been exposed to regarding Africa and the experiences of Black people in the United States. Sources of such distortions and misinformation include Hollywood movies and television productions, i.e., Tarzan, George of the Jungle, Blood Diamonds, and the Lion King, and distortions/omissions in our K-12 text books. The church itself has played a major and highly influential role in misrepresenting African and African American heritage throughout history. The Black experience in the United States is often reduced to attention given to slavery, the Abolition Movement (Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman), the Civil Rights Movement (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and a “celebration” of Black History Month. This pretty much sums up the fundamental aspects of our history that receives any significant attention in “required” reading in our schools. As a result our formal education sends the subtle message that prior to European contact and the establishment of the trade of African people Africa has no history worthy of study.
Limited space will not allow me to address the questions I’ve raised, but I strongly encourage you to not only struggle with these and related questions, but go further and seek the truth about your history. Seeking such truth means that you will have to read beyond what you are required to read in most if not all of the degree programs you are seeking to attain. I invite you; I dare you, to Google each of the names listed in set number one. Discover the legacy you share and how great you really are! Read what is required of you, but if you’re seeking to be free, if you’re seeking to be great, and if you want to learn how to love yourself and your people through knowing the truth of your history. I invite you, I implore you to read beyond what is required! You will not only learn what people of African descent accomplished, but also learn from the mistakes they made. Just as any people on earth many mistakes were made in the struggle of life. An awareness of these mistakes will help you to avoid repeating them moving forward. If African American students of all ages do this, the experience will make a significant contribution in helping them learn to love themselves. They will be proud to embrace their heritage and unlike the children in the experiment they will gladly choose the black doll! Jesus instructs us in Matthew 22:39 to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To accomplish this we must first learn to love ourselves.
Here are some books that are “required” in my classes:
Hine, Darlene Clark, Hine, William C., and Harrold, Stanley, The African American Odyssey, Volume One: to 1877, 2000. Reprint, Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Hine, Darlene Clark, Hine, William C., and Harold, Stanley, The African American Odyssey, Volume Two. (5th edition), Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2011.
Du Bois, William Edward Burghart, The Souls of Black Folk. 1903, Reprint, Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2005.
Haley, Alex, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 1964, Reprint, New York: Random House Publishing, 1973.
Burnley, Lawrence A. Q., The Cost of Unity: African American Education and Agency in the Christian Church, 1865-1914. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009.
Holt, Thomas C. and Brown, Elsa Barkley, Major Problems in American History Volume I: From Slavery to Freedom, 1619-1877. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999.
Wilmore, Gayraud S., Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans, 1972. Reprint, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998.