Who’s afraid of Black History?

February 26, 2014

By Joe Brewster
Co-Producer and Co-Director, American Promise


Recently, the Dalton School found itself in a jam when a teacher aired “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” a satirical “mockumentary” that explores slavery through the lens of a speculative history where the South won the Civil War and slavery endures today. The effort backfired: according to a newspaper article, some students “felt the film was insensitive to the struggle of blacks and made light of slavery.” Dalton head Ellen C. Stein met with upset parents to express both her contrition and lack of advance knowledge that the class would view the film. On the other hand, the filmmaker, Kevin Willmott, a Black man and professor of film at the University of Kansas, defended the movie and lamented the lost opportunity to provoke a conversation about this difficult subject. “This, in essence, is the American problem in race,” he said. “The minute that things become real, the minute that you get close to the edge, everything shuts down.”
Slavery is a notoriously fraught subject for Americans to navigate, but for Black students — particularly those in predominately white school settings — all of American history can feel riddled with landmines, even during Black History Month. Carter G. Woodson and others designed this celebration to prefigure a time when schools would teach African American history accurately and from a Black perspective; however, too many schools teach black history as several hundred years of Black submission and oppression, followed by decades more of struggle at the bottom of the American well. Within that narrative, Black people’s active resistance to slavery often gets overlooked. So do the characteristics that it took to overcome it, including backbreaking work, bravery, perseverance, and an indescribable ability not merely to delay gratification but also to forego joy.
The fact that many teachers present Black history as a disaster reel accompanied by a soundtrack of mournful spirituals makes Black students feel not like the descendants of arguably the greatest liberation struggle in human history — emulated by freedom seekers the world over, from Tiananmen Square to South Africa to Tahrir Square — but as history’s biggest losers. And few educators would risk framing slavery as some might characterize it: as our nation’s White forbears’ mass psychosis. In their new book The Triple Package, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld propose that Black Americans operate under the burden of both a negative history and a narrative of inferiority, which cripples them in the race for achievement, causing them to trail both White Americans and success-oriented immigrants. But in their Times editorial, Chua and Rubenfeld brushed past the pivotal role that government-backed programs have played in destroying Black families, or the role that white privilege plays in mediating access to opportunity in American society — not to mention the media’s centuries-long complicity in making horrifically negative stereotypes of Black people normative. If there’s a narrative of inferiority about black Americans, it’s because that’s the narrative we — as a society — have created, crafted, and chosen to tell.


There is a better way, and it starts with all of us who are involved in raising black children today — parents, teachers, and members of the extended “village” who interact with our young people. But crafting a new narrative isn’t easy, as the Dalton experience shows — ignoring our history is not an option, but finding the right way to talk about it can take a deft touch, even for black parents. While researching “Promises Kept: Raising Black Children to Succeed in School and in Life,” the companion book to American Promise, our documentary about the coming-of-age tale of two African American boys, we discovered that many Black parents become tongue-tied when talking about race to their children. They don’t want to burden their kids with their baggage, even though they know that discrimination — often in the guise of implicit, or unconscious bias — persists. But studies show that parents who talk to Black children about discrimination, racial pride and individual self worth, tend to raise academic achievers with strong self-esteem.
Fundamental to such racial socialization is crafting for our children a narrative of black culture and history that allows them to see that while our experience has been marked by struggle, there is a clear space within that for them to achieve. Black people, under the greatest duress, helped define American freedom. Our own family legacies are undoubtedly full of dramatic stories of survival, migration, immigration, faith, love, and varieties of achievement and overcoming adversity. Our communities are full of stirring history lessons — whether they’re historical buildings or the elders down the street — that teach our kids about the power of grit and perseverance. We, as adults, may first have to do some work ourselves, given the “miseducation” — to steal a phrase from Woodson — that many of us labor under, but it’s worth it. We may find that in the process of sharing a narrative of achievement with our children, we are healing our own bruised sense of self.
And a history of struggle can be the best gift we can give to our children. Research shows that we can counter stereotype threat, a test-taking anxiety that disproportionately impacts Black children (particularly males), by teaching them a “growth mindset” — that intelligence is not doled out at birth; rather, the brain operates like a muscle: hard work and intentional practice can make our children smarter. Parents can encourage this by pushing their children to consistently work at the frontier of their abilities — so that they struggle and occasionally fail. Seen in this light, struggle is critical to growth and learning and becomes a steppingstone to success, not evidence of inferiority.

The United States is on an irreversible march to a racial and ethnic future so complex that it is hard to imagine. If we want our children to successfully navigate both the journey and that society, we must help to create spaces that encourage nuanced dialogue. For example, framed thoughtfully beforehand and unpacked appropriately afterward, films such as “C.S.A.” can cultivate a complicated understanding of race in America. But for this to happen, we need to allow institutions, including schools, to practice the growth mindset, as well. To work hard, to push their capacity, take risks, and occasionally make mistakes when it comes to race, and–with our input and feedback — learn from their errors and course-correct. Finally, preparing Black children to lead in these areas requires that parents engage in introspection. If we want to Teflon coat our young people against bias and prepare them to lead complex conversations, we parents, too, must find our voice.
Joe Brewster, M.D., Michèle Stephenson and Hilary Beard are the authors of “PROMISES KEPT: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life.” Brewster and Stephenson are co-directors of American Promise, which airs on PBS’s POV this month.