How Should Black History Be Taught?

UB’s Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education is teaching educators new ways to address the subject.

African American leaders over open book.

A new hub for research and professional development at UB’s Graduate School of Education is seeking ways to tackle one of today’s biggest issues: How are Black history and race taught and learned in K-12 schools and in teacher education programs?

“I wanted to answer the question, ‘What is Black history?’” said LaGarrett King, founder and director of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education.

 “Because we have not answered that question as a country.”

Founded just last year, the center has one fundamental mission: defining Black history education. King said he envisions it as a prominent space where K-12 educators, librarians, policymakers, university faculty and others gather to discuss “how we should approach notions of Black history education, as well as try to understand the nuances of race and racial literacy.”

King’s vision for the center has quickly come to fruition. Through such programs as a monthly professional development series on Zoom called Black History Nerds Saturday School, and an annual three-day Teaching Black History conference that brings hundreds of teachers together to share strategies and learn from one another, it has already influenced educators from across the country and beyond. 

For race in the classroom, a key moment

The arrival of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education comes at a pivotal moment in the culture.

In recent months, books addressing race have been banned in school libraries, and teachers in many states are no longer permitted to talk about race in the classroom. Administrators, policymakers and educators need resources and clarity to best serve students and make informed decisions about teaching history and race.

“I wanted to come up with a Black history framework that school districts can utilize, to not only teach about oppression and liberation but also just teach about the humanity of Black people,” King said.

King aims to break the mold of stale state curricula to help students, teachers and administrators realize a more robust depiction of Black history. While at a similar center he founded at the University of Missouri, King developed a set of principles for teaching Black history. They include highlighting the struggle for freedom and equality and how Black people persisted in their fight against oppression.

Introducing schoolkids to the African diaspora

King’s principles also emphasize the importance of teaching about Africa and the African diaspora, sparked by his observation that many children are first introduced to Black people in school through the history of enslavement.

“When we do that, we miss out on thousands of years of history, and there are implications to understanding Black people as ‘your slaves,’” he said. “But if we understand them as different ethnic groups in Africa, you get to understand their humanity. You get to understand various cultures. You get to understand how these particular people live. You get to really understand how they got to the Western world.”

Since its development, King’s framework has been featured in Education Week and scholarly journals. The principles have also been implemented in school districts in Kentucky, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, Texas, New York and throughout Canada.

Hungry for understanding

King’s interest in the subject began at an early age. Growing up in Louisiana in the 1980s and ’90s, he was hungry for a complete picture of Black history. He dug into his parents’ encyclopedias, and over time, it started to click.

“I don’t know exactly when I fell in love with Black history,” he said. “I just knew it wasn’t in our schools.”

Now King is out to change that, as the center he founded works to develop historical consciousness and racial literacy in students, teachers and, ultimately, society as a whole.