| Wicked Local
February was Black History Month, a time to celebrate Black Americans’ numerous achievements and contributions and reflect upon the struggles which Black Americans have endured in a nation plagued by systemic racism.
This past Black History Month, I grappled with how our education system portrays Black history, and I realized that my core history classes don’t even begin to do Black History Month justice.
Yes, educators teach students about slavery, the era of Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement — all necessary topics to dissect — but they fail to teach Black history beyond the 1960’s and recognize that discrimination and institutional racism towards black Americans still exists today. Additionally, they fail to mention Black Americans’ accomplishments in a nation where the odds are stacked against them.
I’m currently learning about the Second Industrial Revolution in my U.S. history class. My history textbook rattles off the numerous technological contributions that Caucasians have made to the science world, but it overlooks Black Americans’ countless technological innovations.
When I look back on my K-12 education, I can remember being taught about African-American activists, like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass, as well as groundbreaking athletes like Jackie Robinson, but not once can I recall being taught about a Black scientist or innovator. Why is that? It certainly isn’t because they don’t exist.
Which inventors come to mind when you hear the words “telephone” or “light bulb?” Until now, I’ve always thought that Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were solely responsible for their respective innovations, because that’s what I was taught by my school.
I bet many of you don’t know that African-American innovator Lewis Latimer invented the carbon filament, a crucial component of the light bulb, and helped draft the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s design of the telephone. Latimer was a driving force behind two of the most revolutionary American discoveries, and yet most people wouldn’t know that, because many history curriculums continue to unfairly give Edison and Bell all the credit.
What are schools inadvertently conveying when they neglect to enumerate Black Americans’ scientific, technological, medical, and engineering successes and instead only teach students about Caucasian innovators? It is a huge slap in the face to Black Americans, who deserve to be properly represented, as well as a disservice to all students, who may then ignorantly believe that only Caucasians can be innovators.
Though I am not Black, and don’t know what it’s like to be a Black student in America, I am a young woman who can attest that learning about female pioneers like Marie Curie, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Sally Ride made me believe that I was capable of achieving the same successes as them. Black students deserve to feel that same sense of pride in the classroom.
Black students need to know that they can obtain a PhD, like theoretical physicist Dr. Shirley Jackson, the first African-American woman to graduate with a PhD in nuclear physics from MIT — and the inventor of the touch-tone telephone and caller ID!
Black students need to know that they are capable of making trailblazing medical discoveries, like Dr. Percy Julian, an African-American who was the first person to synthesize physostigmine, a treatment for glaucoma.
Black students need to know that they can contribute creative and practical innovations, like African-American developer Garrett Morgan, who invented the gas mask as well as the three-light traffic light, and Black scientist Lisa Gelobter, who created Shockwave, the software engineering technology that developed web animation.
Students should be taught about African-Americans Frederick McKinley Jones, who created the first automatic refrigeration system for trucks, Mark E. Dean, who helped develop the first color computer monitor, and Madam C. J. Walker, who invented the first line of specialized hair and beauty products for African-Americans.
The list goes on and on.
Black Americans have positively shaped the world in numerous ways. Our history curriculum must reflect that. Let’s make sure that we recognize their contributions in all facets of life — not just during Black History Month, but during each and every day of the year.
— Emma Sullivan is a student at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School.
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