From switchel to seltzer, it's a golden age for non-alcoholic beverages in the region.
Black History Month begins today, but some say it’s an idea whose time has passed, and that it’s doing more harm than good today. We meet a filmmaker who crisscrossed the country to explore race and power in America, including the role African American history plays in our nation’s consciousness and classrooms. Join Kojo for an exploration of the debate over how we teach history and who decides what’s mandatory.
- Shukree Hassan Tilghman Filmmaker; Writer, director, "More Than A Month" (airing Feb. 16 at 10 p.m. on PBS series "Independent Lens")
- Sandra Dungee Glenn Former member and chairperson, School Reform Commission, School District of Philadelphia; Member, Pennsylvania State Board of Education; President and CEO, American Cities Foundation
- Jonathan Zimmerman Professor of Education and History, Director of the History of Education Program, Steinhardt School of Education, New York University; author, "Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools" (Harvard University Press)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Your Turn on whether we should continue Black History Month or anything else on your mind, but, first, it started in 1926 with Washington's own Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves who became a renowned historian, author of the book "Mis-Education of the Negro," a journalist, a dean at Howard University and the so-called father of black history.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn an attempt to help popularize new research into the contributions of black Americans, Woodson created Negro History Week. Half a century later in 1976, it became Black History Month, which begins today. While communities around the country plan lectures and events to honor black Americans, there's a growing concern that a well-intentioned idea is, in fact, causing more harm than good.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIf we set aside a month to honor black history, does that give us clearance to ignore it the rest of the year? A new documentary examines whether we still need Black History Month or whether we'd better off without it. So joining me to explore this debate is Shukree Hassan Tilghman. He is a writer and director of the aforementioned documentary film. It's called "More Than A Month." He joins us from studios in Detroit. Shukree Hassan Tilghman, thank you for joining us.
MR. SHUKREE HASSAN TILGHMANThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone from Philadelphia is Sandra Dungee Glenn, former member and chair of the School Reform Commission of the School District of Philadelphia and a member of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education and president and CEO of American Cities Foundation. Sandra Dungee Glenn, thank you for joining us.
MS. SANDRA DUNGEE GLENNYou're very welcome. Thank you for allowing me to be here.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone from New York is Jonathan Zimmerman. He's a professor of education and history at New York University and author of the book "Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools." Jonathan Zimmerman, thank you for joining us.
PROF. JONATHAN ZIMMERMANThanks for having me.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation by phone, you can call us at 800-433-8850. If you happen to be a history teacher, we'd love to hear from you. How do you address the contributions of different racial and ethnic groups? 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. Shukree, I'll start with you. Talk about the evolution of Black History Month. What was it intended to do in the 1920s, and what is its purpose today?
TILGHMANWell, you know, it's funny. A friend of mine asked me the other day, did I think that after making this film, would I become the foremost expert on Black History Month? And I said...
NNAMDIYeah. I thought you were probably saying I should be asking Kojo that, but go ahead.
TILGHMANI said, you know, I've always wanted to be the foremost expert in something, but I don't think I'm the foremost expert in Black History Month. However, you know, it was -- start as a week, as you've mentioned in the intro, in 1926. You know, people -- Woodson scholars sort of, you know, have different opinions about, you know, what its main intention was.
TILGHMANBut, you know, Dr. Woodson had a main textbook called "The Negro in Our History," which was used in a lot of the black schools prior to integration, of course, as one of the main history textbooks. And Negro History Week was a week that was set aside. He created programs and guides and leaflets to go out to the schools, giving people, giving students, you know, things that they could do -- plays, special lessons -- that would highlight things that they had learned from that text throughout the year. It evolved, as you mentioned, in the '70s. The year is a little in question.
TILGHMANBut in the '70s, it evolved into Black History Month. And that's where it is today. And as far as its purpose, you know, people -- it depends on who's celebrating it and what they're doing. I think the ultimate purpose has always been the continued exposure of African-American history in education and society at large.
NNAMDIWell, let's cut to the chase, if you will. Some people have argued in recent years that we should end Black History Month because black history should be taught and appreciated year-round. You traveled across the country exploring people's attitudes about black history and documented them in your new film "More Than A Month." What motivated you to make the film?
TILGHMANWell, it started with just growing up with Black History Month. I'm born in 1979. And as we've mentioned, Black History Month really comes of age in the mid-'70s, '76. And so, literally, I grew up with it. As Black History Month is coming of age, so, too, am I. And I -- when I was a kid, I loved black history. I mean, I loved Black History Month. Those people, as I've mentioned in the film, that would be brought out during Black History Month were like -- they were like superheroes to me.
TILGHMANI thought -- I felt a sense of empowerment, a sense of pride. And that only changed as I got older. And as I became an adult, I started to see sort of the same posters that would go up on the wall. The same four, five people sort of get trotted out. I'd see, you know, in my classrooms, people's eyes sort of glaze over when Black History Month came on, you know, these sort of things that had nothing to do with African-American history that would be programmed on television or in the community.
TILGHMANAnd I started to think, what is this? What does this mean that we have this thing, and why have we not questioned it? And what would it mean if we didn't?
NNAMDIAnd so you set out...
TILGHMANSo that's why I...
NNAMDI...on this odyssey to make this film. We will get to some of the conclusions that you arrived at later, but allow me to have Jonathan Zimmerman join the conversation. Jon, one of the themes of this debate is that black history should be taught in schools as an integral part of American history. But you've said that the problem with black history is the same one that afflicts history writ large. It's set up to make us cheerleaders for a parade of heroes. What should history education do instead of that?
ZIMMERMANWell, let me make clear just from the outset that, you know, I've spent a good part of my career researching and teaching black history, so I don't want any of the listeners to think that I'm in any sense "opposed" to black history. But I do think that, as you've just said, what afflicts Black History Month is, in some ways, the same thing that afflicts history instruction writ large, which is a form of cheerleading.
ZIMMERMANI think, over the 20th century, for some very salutatory reasons, we had cheer led for a wider audience that is -- if anybody tells you today that, for example, our high school or community high school history textbooks are all about white men, they simply haven't opened one. Of course, that was the case for most of our history. But thanks to the civil rights revolution, you now find that the textbooks try to include everybody. That's why they're 900 pages, and the middle school kids are getting back problems carrying them around.
ZIMMERMANIn some ways, that's a great, small d, democratic triumph. But I also think it's a problem to get to your question about the purpose of history. If one of the things you think in a democracy that history should do is make us question things, is make us skeptical, is make us critique and, most of all, make us ask, how all these different parts fit together or even whether they do, I think everyone should note that, even as the textbook got fatter with all of these multicultural Americans that the theme of the textbook usually stayed the same and so did the title.
ZIMMERMANYou know, "Rise of the American Nation," "A Quest for Liberty." You know, the chemistry textbook is not called "Triumph of the Atom" or "Rise of the Periodic Table." I think, unfortunately, to all of our detriment, history has been reduced often to a cavalcade of heroes, a set of names and dates of famous people.
NNAMDIWell, is that unique...
ZIMMERMANAnd what that does is it diverts us from the big questions we should be asking.
NNAMDIIs that unique to our culture? It seems to me that that might be a global phenomenon. The purpose of teaching history would appear in a lot of countries in the world is to inspire a level of patriotism. Now, that may not be what it should be doing, but it seems to me that that's kind of a universal practice, is it not?
ZIMMERMANIt certainly is. And, you know, history is absolutely bound up with nationhood. Indeed, it defines nationhood. Eric Hobsbawn, who was kind of the dean of 20th century English historians, had this quip that I love, which goes something like, if nations are heroin addicts, history is poppy. That is, of course, poppy is from where heroin comes.
ZIMMERMANAnd yet, if nations are to improve themselves, I think that they do need a critical encounter with history that moves beyond the poppy stage. I've never been to Mozambique, but I'm sure in Mozambique the history textbooks say that Mozambique is awesome. And I've never been to Papua New Guinea, but I'm sure they say that the Papua New Guineans are awesome. But I also think that, especially in an interdependent and an increasingly globalized world, that's also quite problematic because we want people not just celebrating the nation state but actually thinking outside of its bounds.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're having a conversation about Black History Month, specifically, should we end Black History Month and make sure that black history is taught throughout the regular curriculum? Feel free to join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850 or by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDISpeaking of black history being spread throughout the regular curriculum, Sandra Dungee Glenn, in 2005, the Philadelphia School District became the first in the country to require all high school students to take a year-long class in African-American history in order to graduate. You were the driving force behind adoption of that class. Why?
GLENNWell, I think some of it has been touched on already today. I think, for a couple of reasons, one, as to Jonathan's point and to the point you make, Kojo, I think, through education, part of the role of history is to give people a sense of themselves, who they are, from what they've come, and therefore where they can go.
GLENNAnd I (unintelligible) Philadelphia was part of a district where two-thirds of our students who are African-American students are. African-American students and the other third of them are obviously in a very multicultural city and in a city where the largest part of our urban population are African-American people. So to be a part of that culture -- and in this context it was very important, I think, that all of our children had a sense of the background, the history, the development of people of African descent.
GLENNI think it's particularly important for children of African descent to know that because so much of what we see, since we're not in a perfect world and so much of the messages and images that are given to us, all of us, and hit, I think, African-American people particularly hard, are negative images of who we are, what we are and more -- most importantly what we are not, what we have not done.
GLENNAnd we are very much marginalized in much of what the larger society portrays of us. So I thought it was very important that our children had a different perspective and that we try to present a more correct version of human history, human development, world history and world development. So those were some of the reasons, and I do think that it is impactful on our self-image and also on our national image of our citizens. So...
NNAMDIWhat do students...
GLENN...I think it was -- you know, it's a very relevant part of what education should be about.
NNAMDIWhat do students actually learn in class, in that class, that year-long class?
GLENNYou said, what do they learn?
GLENNWell, it goes through the -- attempts to go through, in about a 10-month period of time, everything from the origins of civilization and looking at Africa and the beginning of civilizations in Africa and therefore the grounding of African people as part of world history moving on to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and there -- and then the history of people of African descent in the diaspora in Western America, if you would.
GLENNThe North America, Central America, South America and with most of the time and attention given to North America, bringing it up as closely as you can to modern day and current events. So it does attempt to cover...
GLENN...roughly, you know, several thousand years of history in 10 months.
NNAMDIAnd given the nature of the African-American relationship with the United States, you're talking about history that every American should know. But, Shukree, you observe that, as far we know, no other major school district has followed Philadelphia's lead in requiring a class on African-American history. What does that say to you?
TILGHMANWell -- and Sandra may be able to speak better about this. I mean, at the time that we filmed, they were -- and we looked around. They were the only one. There are other places that have a -- there's a distinction to be made. There are other places that have a sort of mandatory elective or some work that's been done by a board -- it's called Amistad Commissions in about six states, where they must -- a district must require that they provide some classes in African-American history or related to it.
TILGHMANBut it's not a graduation requirement. A student is not required to take it. I've always said that I think that the move in Philadelphia is a powerful message, that we believe as a people, as a nation, or at least as a city, that it's this important. This history is important enough that it requires a distinct area of study. I also think it speaks to -- and, again, Sandra may be able to speak to this more in terms of its origins. But I think you create something like that when you notice that there is a lack, that there is an absence of something.
TILGHMANThe fact that other people haven't or other districts have not done something like that, I mean, honestly, you'd have to ask them. But I think it -- maybe they don't recognize the same type of absence. And I think -- I just want to ask -- sort of ask a question, Mr. Zimmerman, since he's certainly -- you know, certainly more than I, the expert in terms of textbooks and that whole thing. He mentioned earlier that there -- that textbooks are not, at least in middle and high school, filled with stories of white men. And I'm certainly not the expert.
TILGHMANBut I would ask, I wonder if it's recognized that that at least is still -- as far as parents are concerned and people that we've talked to across the country and even students, that that seems to be, at least, a perception, if it's not the truth.
ZIMMERMANOh, definitely, and, yeah, I mean, I should clarify what I was saying. I mean, I -- whites are overrepresented in the story. I think other groups are underrepresented. I was just making a comment about historical change in the past 40 years. I wasn't saying that we've achieved some perfect state of equality. But I also think people, especially white people, who lived 40 or 80 years ago would be astounded at how many non-white stories and faces there are in our books today. That's all. Not that they're (unintelligible) .
ZIMMERMANYou know, whites don't dominate the story. I mean, come on, you know, there are -- you know, as a friend of mine says, they're on the money, right?
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation, this question, should we end Black History Month? Feel free to offer your viewpoint by calling us at 800-433-8850. Do you think Black History Month or Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month or National Hispanic Heritage Month is a good idea? 800-433-8850, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on whether or not we should end Black History Month. We are talking with John Zimmerman. He's a professor of education and history at New York University and author of the book, "Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools." Sandra Dungee Glenn is a former member and chair of the school reform commission in the school district of Philadelphia, which includes a course in black history in the regular curriculum. She's a member of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education and president and CEO of American Cities Foundation.
NNAMDISandra, I know you can't stay with us a lot longer, so I'm going to direct my first questions to you after reintroducing Shukree Hassan Tilghman, who's the writer and director of the documentary film "More Than A Month." He joins us from studios in Detroit. Sandra, could you talk a little bit about how -- what would -- the reaction was to the class in Philadelphia? How have parents and students reacted?
GLENNWell, I think there probably were a range of reactions. I think, for the most part, again, because we're talking about a district where two-thirds of the student body are African-American students and this had been something that the community members of the community had been fighting for and calling for, for a number of years, it did receive a great deal of support and a recognition and appreciation across the city from many communities, not just African-American members.
GLENNBut I have to say that there were some folks in public office, as well as private individuals, who did comment and write in to my colleagues. None of them commented or wrote to me, but commented and wrote to my colleagues complaining about this and basically saying that they did not approve of it, that they did not want to see it happen in schools in their neighborhood, questioning why African-American history needed to be pulled out and special attention needed to be given to it.
GLENNBut I would say after probably about the first five or six months, that died down. I really haven't heard any other negative comments, and I think the remaining question is is how well it's being adhered to throughout our schools. We have over 200 schools in Philadelphia, so whether -- you know, making sure that all 80 of our high schools are teaching it, that may be another question (unintelligible) .
NNAMDIAnd it's my understanding...
ZIMMERMANIf I could ask a question that I'm very curious about...
NNAMDIPlease do, John Zimmerman.
ZIMMERMAN...that I've never really heard answered, how has the introduction of this new course affected the general history curriculum?
GLENNWell, it is being -- it was added in, in a grade that did not have a history requirement already. So, again, in theory, it didn't take away from the teaching of what was called standard American history. It was added as another year, if you would, of a history requirement in high school.
GLENNBut the other part of what was not often known is that the other part of the resolution called for the district to continue to look at ways to infuse...
GLENN...the curriculum across all subjects and all grades with the contributions, accomplishments and history of people of African descent, so it wasn't intended to be a standalone forever and ever and ever. But it did need to be spoken out that right now it's absent. It needed to be addressed. It needed to be included and dropped in, if you would. And, over time, it really should be infused as a part of what we offer in public education.
NNAMDIAnd how were teachers prepared for this class?
GLENNFor a period of time, and, I think, even still, even now, there are professional development sessions that are provided to teachers to help them in delivering the course. We did, at that time -- the way the district was organized, there was a lead coach for African-American studies who worked with school -- worked with schools and worked with history teachers on their professional development.
NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us, Sandra Dungee Glenn.
GLENNAbsolutely. Thank you, Shukree. Thank you for your good work. I think it turned out to be a very fine product.
TILGHMANOh, thank you so much.
NNAMDISandra Dungee Glenn is a former member and chair of the School Reform Commission of the School District of Philadelphia. She's a member of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education and president and CEO of American Cities Foundation. Before we go to the telephones, Shukree, throughout the movie you talked with your parents about their thoughts on Black History Month. It seems to me at times to be a little uncomfortable, that conversation.
TILGHMANWell, my father's reaction, if I would -- I think people should see the movie because I think it's thoughtful and it's funny. And I think it's something people need to see. But, if for no other reason, just to see my father's reaction when I bring up the idea of ending Black History Month, I think that's enough.
NNAMDIYou talk about a stoic face, boy, a face that showed no expression whatsoever.
NNAMDIWhat is he talking about? On the other hand, your mother makes an interesting point about the generational differences of opinion. Let's listen to a clip of your conversation with her.
NNAMDIShukree, to what extent did you find that someone's age could affect their perspective on Black History Month?
TILGHMANTo a large extent. It's interesting. Even as we're doing some of these advance screenings throughout the country -- and that's why I'm here in Detroit -- the reaction to the film even splits down generational minds often. Even if the sentiments may not be so divergent, the reactions in terms of their intensity often are among those generational lines. I think that I'm -- right now, I'm 32, and my people, my parents' generation really bristle at even the thought of ending Black History Month or even talk about it.
TILGHMANAnd I think it comes from a place of -- as my mother speaks to in the film, of so much that we had to do and fight for to just have recognition in a month, just to have recognition as being a person that has a history, that has a legitimate sort of claim to this America. That was hard enough. And now, you're presenting this idea that you want to get rid of it? That rubbed people, and in some ways still rubs people, the wrong way.
TILGHMANI think that, by the end of the film, I hope at least -- that what we're talking about are not two different things -- that we're talking about the extension of that same mission, so that's where we are.
NNAMDIYou're talking about the hard part, the extension of their mission. Here is...
NNAMDI...James in Baltimore, Md. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESYes. I want to thank you so much. I published in African history, and I want to make a quick comment. The problem that everyone is missing is that black history has a negative deflective connotation. In other words, when you think of black as a noun or even as an adjective, it's negative. You know, I had a black day, except in the stock market, of course. Now, what we're saying is this. I would recommend that everyone read Ivan Van Sertima's "Blacks in Science."
JAMESHe was a friend of mine who passed several years ago, but read that book. When you think of black on whatever level, the black scientists are left out. For example, Levi Watkins with defibrillator, Herman Branson, the great theoretical physicist, Charles Drew. We all know what he did, invented (unintelligible) and we hear of him constantly. What about the first open-heart surgery? Daniel Hale Williams.
NNAMDINo, I think...
JAMESWhat we're saying...
JAMES...is that black achievement has never been on the map, you see. And since we're dealing with this presumption, you know, you have to keep what you have, and, of course, black history should actually be American and world history as an integrated proposition. But since that is apparently not the case -- and if you know about publishing as I do, it won't be the case for the next few decades, decades or more -- we must look at the issue.
JAMESAnd the issue is that presumption is negative as opposed to other -- such as Irish or Jews or Italians or Asians, what have you. The black group suffers from a heightened negative presumption, if you will. And I'll take my...
NNAMDIAllow me to have Jon Zimmerman respond to that. Ivan Van Sertima is both my homeboy and a friend of mine when he was alive, so I'm familiar with his work. But, Jon Zimmerman, what do you feel about the negative perception associated with the use of the word black as what James seemed to be suggesting?
ZIMMERMANWell, as a historical matter, the caller is exactly right. But I guess I would question the corollary of all this. It seems that it's -- to me, it -- he's making actually a very strong argument for the infusion of black history into all history, which is precisely where it belongs. In the U.S. context, you simply cannot understand the origin or the development or the fate of America, especially concepts of American liberty, without thinking deeply about African-Americans, about their role, purpose, meaning in our society, in our polity.
ZIMMERMANAnd I would argue that segregating and ghettoing (sp?) black history in some ways lets the rest of us off the hook, delays the day when we really reckon with this history. And I would go even further. I would say it kind of reinforces a negative idea that history writ large, which is history is about pride in self-image -- we heard this from Sandra's very eloquent comments. In fact, we heard a tension because when she was describing the course, she said, well, it's about improving our self-image. But it's also about yielding a more correct version of history.
ZIMMERMANI would submit to you that over time and into today, there's actually a tension between those two goals. And as a historian, I'm extremely troubled by the idea that the purpose of history should make us feel anything. That can't be the purpose because that lends itself to all kinds of awful distortions. One of the reasons that white people distorted the historical record is they wanted to feel good about themselves. As soon as you've erected feeling good as a kind of sine qua non of what good history is, you've opened the door to all kinds of distortion.
TILGHMANI -- oh...
NNAMDIJames, thank you for your call. Shukree.
TILGHMANI just think that's such a great comment. I just -- I think that's absolutely right. And, yeah, I'll wait for the next caller, but I just wanted to say that.
NNAMDIOK. Yeah, because I think the next caller might be -- is kind of where you got to after you had finished doing this film. We'll go to Lamar in Washington, D.C. Lamar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAMARGood afternoon, Kojo and distinguished guests. I would just like to echo the sentiments of the previous caller. And I'm all for a sign of getting rid of Black History Month with conditions. And the conditions would be the infusion of black history into American history. I think, for a large part, our contributions to society have been largely erased from historical context and from books. And that's -- and I'll just give you a brief antidote, and I'll get off the phone.
LAMARI grew up in a society that was probably half and half Jewish and African-American. During the course of the school year, when I was in high -- we have Holocaust commemoration week. Now, during that week, teachers have to take their students -- in other words, it was mandatory to take your students to every assembly that was being held. Now, during Black History Month, those same assemblies that we had in recognition of black history were not mandatory. They were optional.
LAMARImagine what they did to the student body, how that segregated us and made the African-American students feel versus their Jewish peers. It made us feel as if, oh, it's optional for those folks here to learn about us, but it's mandatory for us to learn about them. And that's a big issue I have with historical context here in America and also within our school system.
NNAMDIYou underscore the point that I was going to ask both of our guests about, Lamar. And that is, he mentioned the school district in which he grew up. When I said to the Shukree that's the difficult part, education in the United States is not controlled by one national institution. It is, in fact, controlled by local school boards around the country, making that a part of the difficulty. That's the question for you, Shukree, about how do we get it done nationally.
NNAMDIAnd for you, John Zimmerman, it has to do with the other difficulty, and that is, how do you integrate this into the teaching of history generally without trying to change the whole arc of how history is taught in the United States? First you, John.
ZIMMERMANWell, look, I think that the beginning of the answer has to do, frankly, with the way that we prepare history teachers. I think there's been a lot of improvement on that front, but there's a long way to go. And, specifically, there are some states where you still can be a history teacher with having taken only two or three history courses. This, I regard, as preposterous, and it's actually very intimately related to the discussion we're having right now because I'm really making a plea for complexity here and for asking difficult questions.
ZIMMERMANAnd my fear is that if we have teachers who have not themselves faced these questions as part of their education, that they won't be able to do that. Now, let me be very clear about what I'm saying. I know there are lots of teachers who do do this and do have the preparation to do it, but without that preparation, they can't. Look, I couldn't teach in chemistry, OK? And it doesn't matter how smart I am or what my instincts are. I could make you memorize the periodic table. But I think most reasonable listeners will concede that that really wouldn't be teaching chemistry.
ZIMMERMANAnd the reason is I don't understand the discipline. I don't understand its history. I don't understand what counts as a question or as an answer. My fear is that there are a lot of history teachers that, through not their own fault but because of the way that we prepare teachers, haven't been exposed to that questioning either.
NNAMDIOK. And the question for you, Shukree, has to do with the fact that local school districts control education around the country. And we've just gotten a report from The New York Times, just about a week ago or a little more than a week ago, with the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona dismantling its Mexican-American studies program, packing away the books, shuttling students to other classes, saying that it was a form of brainwashing children into thinking that Latinos have been victims of white oppression.
NNAMDIThat is exactly how teaching African-American history or black history will be perceived in some school districts. What do you say?
TILGHMANIt certainly could, and it -- there's certainly no magic bullet. There is, though, sort of national prescription for change. I think there's only framework. And I think -- you know, and, again, I have to be careful about what I say in terms of what the prescription is and being prescriptive about this kind of stuff 'cause I am a filmmaker, not an academic or an expert on educational policy. I will say, in my experience making the film, there seems like there are a range of solutions.
TILGHMANThere's anything from the very small individual, and I'll give you an example. I think the -- let me just back up for a second. I think the overall goal -- I think we agreed -- is getting to a place both in education and society, and more so in education, where this history, African American history, is thought of in a normative standard process, as vital, and without it -- American history is not valid without it. We just want to get to that place. So how do we get there? Well, there's anything from the small individual thing.
TILGHMANI'll give you an example. The -- there is a big event in Philadelphia, coincidentally, called the African-American history expo. It's been around for 15 years, huge event at the convention center in Philadelphia every year. The organizer last year -- every year, it's been in February. The organizer last year decided to move it to Easter weekend. Why? Just because he wanted African-American history to be thought of outside of that February box. That was an individual move that he made. That's all.
TILGHMANMy mother in the film, for example, has a play that she presents in Black History Month and moves it to April. These are individual examples that I think speak to the larger issue. The bigger thing -- there are local school district solutions such as the one in Philadelphia. I don't think that's a perfect solution. It's still a separate course. But it is a step in the right direction. I think there is a political element that has to be sort of addressed. And lots of times social study standards are legislated.
TILGHMANYou can look at Texas who informs -- I don't know if, you know, we have time to talk about this. But Texas is the largest buyer of school textbooks. What Texas decides to do, in terms of their...
NNAMDIInfluences much of the rest of the nation.
TILGHMANInfluences much of the nation. And the people on that board influence history. So people who want African-American history to be a regular standard, normative process need to be in that room and other rooms like it.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue or conversation on Black History Month and whether we should end it or not. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. If the lines are busy, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. How do you think we should teach our children about the role different groups have played in our nation's history? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're having a conversation on the continued need or usefulness of Black History Month or the lack thereof. We're talking with Shukree Hassan Tilghman. He is a writer and director of the documentary film "More Than A Month." He joins us from studios in Detroit. Jon Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at New York University and author of the book "Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools."
NNAMDIA lot of people would like to join this conversation by phone, so I'm going to take several phone calls right one after the other before I ask our guests to comment. We'll start with Sandra in Arlington, Va. Sandra, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SANDRAYes, hi. My name is Sandra, and my last name is Hernandez.
SANDRAAnd -- yes. I am calling on behalf of all children in America, but particularly here in Virginia. Our history is really murky, really, really vague and no mention -- or very little mention of African-American history is made in Virginia. The thing about it is -- yeah, it should be more than a month. But the problem is that if you take out the month, then you're not going to have any at all. We live right now in what used to be Freedmen's Village, and that was an area, historically, where freed slaves lived and prospered.
SANDRAThey suffered many atrocities, many illnesses, but they were a community. And that land was taken away from them again and given to the military. And it's happening again. They talk about building maybe a heritage museum over here, but a heritage museum is a monument. It's not going to be...
NNAMDIAnd what's -- is there anything being taught about what you just told us in schools in that part of Virginia at all?
SANDRAAs far as I know, no or not enough.
NNAMDIOK. We do have to move on, Sandra, 'cause there are so many people who want to talk about this. Here's Darryl in McLean, Va. Darryl, your turn.
DARRYLKojo, it's a privilege to talk to you.
DARRYLJust wanted to share -- I just wanted to share a story with you. Last year, while I was on business in Tennessee, I took one of my co-workers, a 35-year-old white guy, to the Lorraine Hotel, which is the site of the King assassination and the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. And he was astonished and even embarrassed that he had such a low recognition of the historical site as well as many of, you know, the key civil rights displayed inside of the museum, like the story of Emmett Hill.
DARRYLAnd he kept asking me, if I don't know this, if this wasn't taught to me, who's going to teach my children? Because he felt like it was so important for them to know. And as I sat there and thought about it, the only time that it was ever taught to me was in February. So I can't wait to see this film. I think it's an incredible part of American history and needs to continually be reinforced for the good of the entire country.
NNAMDIDaryl, thank you very much for your call. On now to Yeda (sp?) in Fairfax, Va. Yeda, go ahead, please.
YEDAYeah. Hey, Kojo, thanks for taking my call. As a nation, we can't begin to understand where we're heading unless we know where we've been. And failing to recognize the contribution of the African-American population in the very foundation of this nation is a travesty. I also believe that you can have both the integration of the African-American contribution to the history of this country as well as the month, African-American history month, especially because what is being taught in the school varies so greatly from state to state. And that is a whole show on its own.
NNAMDIAnd indeed it is, Yeda. I'm glad you raised the issue, though, because of what is taught because -- and, Jon Zimmerman, I'd like you to respond to this. First, we got an email from William in Arlington, who says, "I think all American history could be taught in the same manner as the Great Books program at St. John's in Annapolis. Each quarter of a school year could focus on an important period in our history.
NNAMDI"There are many areas that could be featured: the arrival of the first European settlers, the American Revolution, westward expansion, Texas and Mexico, the Civil War, the establishment of civil rights, the slave trade. By limiting the focus, students would learn in more depth. Perhaps some of the mythology in our study of history could be corrected. The parade of names and dates in a conventional history course only lasts until summer vacation begins." What do you say, Jon Zimmerman?
ZIMMERMANWell, I absolutely agree with the thrust of the question. Unfortunately, I think a lot of our school districts are going in the opposite direction because of standardized testing, which, alas, too often, I think, promotes precisely the kind of names and dates history that the emailer is complaining about. And I say that with, obviously, great sadness. The only other thing that I'd add, though, is -- you know, although I agree with him, the real question here is, what do we want them to learn about each of these events? That's the real question, the ones that he enumerated.
ZIMMERMANAnd I would say that there's only one intellectually respectable answer, which is that adults disagree. That is a great secret that we will not share when the kids are in the room. This actually cuts back to the Arizona example that came up earlier in the discussion about the ethnic studies course that was cancelled.
ZIMMERMANWhen that first began, I wrote an op-ed criticizing the ethnic studies course not because I don't think people in Arizona or in the United States should know about the Mexican experience -- because, of course, I do -- but I think the idea of having a separate Mexican-American history course actually makes it less likely that we're going to engage in real dialogue. So in the regular history curriculum, we'll talk about how great it was that the United States added to its area by two-thirds during the Mexican War.
ZIMMERMANAnd then in the other course, we'll probably talk about how unjust and unfair it was. And, of course, this puts off the great day of reckoning, which is trying to make sense for ourselves of this event. If we have one course that waves the flag and the other one that does the opposite, it's going to be more difficult to do the hard work that we need to do.
NNAMDIHere now -- and this one, I guess, is for you, Shukree -- is Tim in Charlottesville, Va. Tim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TIMYes. My question, really going back to the core question, which was, you know, do we maintain the month as it is, or is it possible or likely that there would be a successful integration throughout the entire curricula? My question really revolves around accountability.
TIMHow do you -- envisioning the scenario in which you have this integrated curriculum through the year, how do you maintain accountability throughout, you know, the nation without one designated month or without a reminder of that month? How do you maintain accountability?
NNAMDIAnd I think that's the conclusion that Shukree ultimately came to after making this documentary. Shukree?
TILGHMANWell, I'll just say that I don't think -- I think I can answer this and try to answer a couple of the other comments that were made also. The truth is that it's not an either/or proposition. You can have a Black History Month, and you can celebrate Black History Month in school and in society and also vie for the further exposure and inclusion of this history into American history, or expressed as part of American history in courses and in society.
TILGHMANThe question is, I think, to what degree, as Jon said earlier, is the existence of Black History Month, or other months like this, letting people off the hook? To what extent does it allow people to simply say, well, we have Black History Month, so, hey. I think -- I don't think that having a Black History Month makes anyone accountable. I think making sure that that history -- and, again, there's -- there would be several -- there are several ways to do that, and I think that's a much longer conversation.
TILGHMANBut making sure that that history is part of the curriculum, to me, that does -- that seems to make more -- people more accountable in schools than having a Black History Month -- which is not a mandatory thing, by the way -- would. You know, my misgivings about the mandatory course in Philadelphia aside, it's still -- I mean, it does make teachers accountable 'cause they have to do it. Students are accountable 'cause they have to do it to graduate.
TILGHMANAgain, not a perfect solution, but when something is mandated and it becomes part of policy, I would think that accountability is built in. Black History Month is not a wall, by the way.
NNAMDIAnd, finally, this, Jon Zimmerman. We're such a multiracial nation, how do we decide whose history deserves to be singled out for attention, or, conversely, should anyone's history be singled out?
ZIMMERMANWell, look, it seems to me that it goes back to the question of what we want to accomplish here. If we want people, as Sandra was saying earlier, to kind of feel good about themselves, then we have to single out everybody. And we have to identify their heroes and heroines, and we have to say, yay. As a historian, I'm repelled by that idea, not because there aren't things to celebrate, but I don't think school is the place to do that.
ZIMMERMANSchool is not the place where we learn to feel good about who we are. School is the place where we learn to be citizens. And what a citizen is is somebody who has the intellectual ability to come to their own conclusions. And that's precisely what troubles me about the singling out of any group. I should also tell you that it's ironic that we have -- we single out ethnic groups, for example, but not religious ones.
NNAMDIYeah, but I'm...
ZIMMERMANSo you'll have, you know, Black History Week or Hispanic History Month. We also have a Women's History Month. There's no Catholic History Month or Jewish History Month.
NNAMDIThis is true, but I'm afraid we're going to have to end on that note, Jon Zimmerman, because we're just out of time. Jon Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at New York University and author of "Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools." Shukree Hassan Tilghman is writer and director of the documentary film "More Than A Month." And that film premieres on the PBS series "Independent Lens," hosted by Mary-Louise Parker on Thursday, Feb. 16 at 10 p.m.
NNAMDIWe asked people to tweet to us people who they think have been overlooked in history. We got names like Christian A. Fleetwood, James E. Walker, Rayford Logan, West Hamilton, Charles Hamilton Houston. But we end on a sad note: The Associated Press is reporting that Don Cornelius, who, with the creation of "Soul Train," helped break down barriers and broadened the reach of black culture, died today of an apparent suicide. He was 75. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Last year, Elizabeth Acevedo won the National Book Award for her debut novel "The Poet X." She joins us to discuss her newest work of young adult fiction.
Beginning this weekend, all of the Metrorail stations south of National Airport will be closed through September 8 for major renovations. Are you ready?
Amid Washington’s graduation season, we look at the craft of writing and delivering commencement speeches. What advice sticks — and what doesn’t?