19:42 Run Time | May 30, 2023
As a young boy, LaGarrett King loved history, but he couldn’t figure out where he fit in the narrative he was being taught at school, nor how enslaved people could possibly have been as content as his teachers portrayed. Now a renowned authority on the teaching of Black history, King directs UB’s Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education, a thriving hub of research, professional development, networking and advocacy. In this episode of Driven to Discover, King talks to host Vicky Santos about the real meaning of “history” (it’s not what most people think), why it’s important that every student learn Black history, and the innovative ways his center is advancing Black history education around the world.
Vicky Santos: As a young schoolboy in Baker, Louisiana, LaGarrett King was taught that white plantation owners were kind and that enslaved people were generally happy.
LaGarrett King: When I would listen to the teacher speak about history, these things just didn't make sense.
Vicky Santos: Thus began King's journey to fix Black history education in American schools. Today, King is an associate professor of social studies education and the director of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the University at Buffalo. An award-winning scholar, he has published five books and more than 60 academic articles and book chapters on Black history and race. But the heart and soul of his work is the center, which he founded shortly after his arrival at UB in February of 2022. Based on a similar center he founded at the University of Missouri, it is already a thriving hub of research, professional development, networking and advocacy. And King is just getting started.
Welcome to Driven to Discover, a University at Buffalo podcast that explores what inspires today's innovators. My name is Vicky Santos, and I will be your host for Episode 5: Teaching Black History.
Dr. King, can you take us back to when and how you first became interested in teaching? And can you tell us what interested you in teaching Black history specifically?
LaGarrett King: Yeah, so I've always have been good in history. So as a kid, whenever social studies or history came around, that was always my best subject and I loved the historical stories, I loved the historical characters. I loved the historical events. Just learning about all those particular concepts. And I always wondered, where were people like me within the history narrative? Black kid from Louisiana, working class, etc., etc., right?
Vicky Santos: And looking back from your current vantage point, what do you wish you would've been taught as an elementary student?
LaGarrett King: Wow, a lot, right? I think for me, more about Black history, and not just the Black history that people wanted you to know. So there's two historical eras and events that have always attracted me. No. 1 was the Haitian Revolution, one of the greatest revolutions on this particular planet. And I noticed even as a student, we would talk about the American Revolution, we would talk about the French Revolution, and then weirdly, we would talk about the Russian Revolution. Now, for our younger listeners, at one point, the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia, we didn't really get along. So I always wondered, why are we learning about people we don't really get along with?
My second one was the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, 1930s. The beautiful colors, the beautiful people, the artistic people during that particular time, the “new Negro,” as they said. So those particular topics I wish we would've explored in elementary school.
I wish we would've explored why the world was the way it was at that particular moment, right? Because even as an elementary student, and I hear people all the time who are against the concept of Black history, say, well, these people that are teaching Black history, you know, this is propaganda, it’s telling these kids what to think. And in many ways, for me and my children and for the students I study, we're already thinking about those things as early as 5, 6, 7, 8. And growing up in Louisiana, it was, “Hey, wait a minute, all white folk live across this track, and all the Black people live across this track.” It's just, I'm like, I'm wondering, do Black people just like living across this track? I just wished the teachers or whoever would've kind of talked a little bit about the complexities of race at that particular moment to kind of help clarify some things.
Vicky Santos: Why is it important that everyone learn about Black history in school?
LaGarrett King: Humanity. The problem with history, particularly the way in which we conceptualize history in this country, is that we don't even know what history is. And in many ways people don't even really care what history is, but people come up with these fancy and cute phrases. They'll say things such as, “Hey, we learn history so we don't repeat it,” but we continuously repeat history. So apparently we're not learning history. History has nothing to do with patriotism. History has nothing to do with liking or loving a country. History is about really understanding the humanity of people, the good, the bad and the ugly, and why they made those decisions in the context of that time.
And history has a way of connecting with our identity. I tell people all the time that the first time you are a historian is when you are a child, right? Because as parents, sometimes we complain or we joke around and say, “Hey, these kids ask so many questions.” The reason they're asking so many questions is because they're trying to connect their identity to you.
Vicky Santos: Makes sense, yeah.
LaGarrett King: “Grandma, grandpa, tell me when you met,” right? “Grandpa, grandma, tell me how bad my mom was when she was my age,” right? So I mean, they're trying to figure out who they are. So history's the first time that we learn about ourselves, but it's also the first time that we learn about people who are othered from us. The first time you learn about Black people is that they were slaves. There is repercussions to understanding people in this particular manner. And in many ways, you hear it all the time, right? You're not part of this democracy. Questioning your citizenship.
And all that is because of, and I don't want to call it a stain, but all because of the legacy of enslavement and people who are from that history, it ties us to being a slave. Remember what a slave is. A slave is someone who is dispossessed of agency. A slave is someone who has to be surveilled. A slave is someone who needs to be made human. In many ways, when we think about race and racism in this country, a lot of times white people tell Black people, “Well, if y’all just be like us, then you all wouldn't be treated the way that you will be treated.” And that comes down from the way you dress, the way you act, the way you move around, the way in which you understand who you are, your music. There's always this surveillance to say, “Hey, you need to stop that. You all need to stop that because that's just not the way you act” type of deal. So we're always kind of conceptualized within this notion of, well, you need to be more like white people. At this particular moment, I would argue that white people have no idea who Black people are, because in many ways, white people can be disassociated with Blackness. Black people can't be disassociated with whiteness.
Vicky Santos: Some people object to the term Black history, saying Black history is American history. You embrace the term. In your mind, is Black history a bridge toward the goal of transforming the teaching of American history so that it reflects the real story of America? Or will there always be Black history?
LaGarrett King: One thing that we have to understand, and this goes back to understanding what is history. If history is connected to humanity, then history is, No. 1, manufactured based on the person who writes it. And history is also based on perspectives. Therefore, there's no true one history. I argue a lot that people need to stop calling it “history” and just call it “histories” to remind us that there's multiple histories that make up our history. So in many ways, if we are fighting to help us understand different perspectives, then we're never going to have a true “American history.” For example, we can add Black historical characters to the narrative, but if we don't take Black people's perspectives in that narrative, then we're not teaching Black history.
I use the example of Brown vs. Board of Education. For most people, Brown vs. Board of Education is the greatest or one of the greatest Supreme Court cases ever to hit the United States. It helped usher in diversity and integration, etc., etc. But we don't teach Brown through Black people's perspectives. First of all, Black people didn't want to integrate with white people. Why? Because we understood the racism involved in that. We just wanted to have equitable school funding, not integration, right? Integration meant moving into white spaces, not Black spaces. So when you moved into white spaces, then what happened? Black schools closed. Black teachers lost their jobs. Black administrators either lost their jobs or they were demoted, right? Brown implied that predominantly Black schools were inferior. In fact, they weren't inferior in terms of their intellectual rigor.
My good friend Derek Alrich has a wonderful oral history project called Teachers of the Movement. And in one of the interviews, one of the teachers, well, one of the students who integrated during that time, said he walked in that classroom and looked around and was like, man, these people are not smarter than me. If you ask older Black people who were in segregated schools, you would never hear one older Black person talk negatively about their segregated school. Never. I have never heard an older Black person talk bad about their segregated school experiences, because you had culturally relevant teachers, you had culturally relevant principals, you had people that looked like them, and you had, actually you had people, teachers, that believed in them. And that's probably the biggest thing we don't really talk about for Brown vs. Board of Education.
When I was at Clemson University, we did a symposium, I think for the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, and we had a panel of people who were the first to integrate South Carolina schools. A student asked a question, which was an excellent question, “How did y'all deal with racism from your classmates?” Overwhelmingly, the panel noted, we didn't really experience racism from our classmates. Remember, these people were probably in elementary school at the time, and they said, We didn't experience racism from our classmates. We did experience racism from our teachers. Because they understood their teachers did not want to teach them.
So therefore, if we trace the history of the achievement gap, or we trace the history of all these negative aspects about Black folk, Black children in schools, you'll trace it to when we were integrated. Black history fell off in those classes, teachers did not want to teach those particular students because they were not culturally relevant. They couldn't teach those students. So instead of improving their instructional practices, they blamed the students. And we've been suffering from that since then.
Vicky Santos: That makes sense. Yeah. All right. We're going to shift the focus back to UB here and talk about your center. You founded the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at UB. What happens here and how did it come about?
LaGarrett King: I developed a similar center at my previous institution, and I wanted to kind of expand the offerings when I moved here. The center idea came when I was a graduate student, and I started to learn more and more about the history of Black history education. What's interesting is that Black history education has been part of the educational lexicon since after emancipation. So from my research, as early as 1890, Black teachers were writing Black history textbooks for their students because they understood that the history textbooks were not sufficient to teach around Black history. So I noted when I was in grad school that, wait, there hasn't been... well, first of all, we've been doing this Black history thing for over 100 years and we still can't get it right. There's still complaints about it. A lot of schools are not teaching it, teachers don't know how to teach it, etc., etc. And there hasn't been a place that helped teachers conceptualize Black history in a manner to push students forward.
So I wanted to create a center that would help pK-12 teachers understand Black history and teach it in their classrooms more effectively. And we do that through research projects because of course we're a research institution, so we're always doing research. The center focuses on professional development where we create programs to try to help talk about different topics around Black history.
The center’s about networking, because what I found throughout my travels—because I talk all over the world about Black history—is that there are people that are doing some excellent things around Black history around the country and Canada and the UK and South Africa, and all those places. The problem is we don't know each other. So I wanted to have a central space where all of us from around the world can meet and just talk and share resources and talk about approaches to Black history.
And last, the center focuses on advocacy. I'm really serious about advocating for students. I'm advocating for teachers, advocating for community members, advocating for Black history businesses, and just advocating and helping educate society about the purpose of Black history and how we can effectively teach it so we all can learn to become a better democracy.
Vicky Santos: In addition to the center, you also started a number of other initiatives, including Black History Nerds Saturday School and the annual Teaching Black History conference. Can you talk a little bit about those initiatives?
LaGarrett King: Yeah. So Black History Nerds and the Teaching Black History conference are all kind of tied to our professional development mission. So for Black History Nerds, out of the blue, a few years ago during COVID, I had a classmate reach out to me on Facebook and said, “Hey, man, I would like to talk to you.” And I was like, oh, this is kind of weird. He was like, “Yeah, LaGarrett, man, I just wanted to contact you because I've been seeing you doing all this stuff on Black history, and I think it's admirable. Dude, I don't know anything.” And this is a Black guy. He was like, “Man, I don't know anything. I need to learn more about this.” And that was one of the points where I was like, ah, okay. All right. And then I would hear other people say, “Oh man, I just don't have the time.” Or, “Oh man, I wish we could do something,” whatever.
So the Saturday Schools birthed from that conversation with my former classmate because I'm like, huh, what if we have a bunch of people that just want to learn about Black history tune in on a Saturday morning. They can eat breakfast, drink their coffee, fold their laundry or whatever, and just listen to various different aspects of Black history, and anybody can join, right? Teachers, citizens, community educators.
The Teaching Black History conference, of course, is our signature conference. The Teaching Black History conference convenes hundreds of educators from around the world to talk about the most effective strategies around Black history. Each year we have a theme, and while the theme is for the guest speakers, there are teachers, the majority of our presentations are from actual teachers who teach in our public and private schools, and they just talk about effective ways to teach Black history.
Vicky Santos: What's next for you and/or the center?
LaGarrett King: For the center, we're doing some great things. We're coming up with a Teaching Black History microcredential for teachers and for anyone else that may find it useful. One of the biggest concerns with Black history is that I may get calls from people saying, “Hey, I want to develop a Black history course. Can you help us develop that Black history course?” And one of the first things I say is, well, yes, but the most important person within the Black history course is the teacher. If you have a bad teacher and you have a great curriculum, a bad teacher's just going to mess up the class. A really great teacher can supersede a bad curriculum. But the problem is, a lot of our teachers don't have the content knowledge. They don't have the pedagogical content knowledge to effectively teach Black history. And the microcredential will hopefully help with that exploration in the classroom.
So we're very excited about that. For me, oh man, I'm just going to be a father and be a good professor and continue to grow as a director. I think I'm in a lucky spot to be at an institution that supports me and supports the center the way it does. And so yeah, the sky's the limit and I'm very optimistic about creating a center that's not only known in Buffalo, but known internationally.
Vicky Santos: Thank you so much.
LaGarrett King: Thank you.