Black history is American history. And no school board members in Bucks County or Lancaster County or anywhere in Pennsylvania can change that reality.
But they sure are trying. ACLU-PA continues to hear from concerned teachers, parents, and students about school boards and administrators who are trying to eliminate all discussions of America’s fraught history around race. Some districts are also pulling books from their shelves that explore questions of sexual orientation and gender identity and banning teachers from engaging students on these important issues.
Whether the topic is Black history or the lives of LGBQ&T people, the goal of this type of censorship is the same - erasure. As historically marginalized communities continue to assert their demand for equity and meaningful progress, those who traditionally have held a comfortable place in this country feel threatened. They shouldn’t; systemic equality benefits every American. Nevertheless, they want us to be invisible and will use their power to make it so.
That’s exactly why Black History Month was started, to tell our stories and raise the profile of our prominence in American history. The annual commemoration’s origins date to 1915, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the minister Jesse E. Moorland founded an organization dedicated to researching and promoting Black Americans’ stories and achievements. In 1926, they started “Negro History Week.” Like so many great moments of progress, it grew from the ground up, at the community level.
In the 1960s, Black History Month was recognized by cities, towns, universities, and schools around the country, and every president since 1976 has honored the celebration.
But some elected officials, from school boards to statehouses, aren’t celebrating today. Here’s the thing: we don’t have to take their attempts at censorship and erasure sitting down. Teachers, parents, and students are fighting back, as locally led groups are popping up around the state. A student-led effort in York County brought national infamy to their district. Administrators had to back down and rescind a list of prohibited materials, all of which were by or about Black or brown people, and several school board members who had pushed the ban lost their reelection effort to challengers who embraced inclusive education.
If you’re a young person reading this, let me say this as clearly as I can: Your school cannot stop you from learning Black history. It is important, however, to fight when schools attempt to censor Black voices. Schools are where the values of democracy are nurtured and built.
But in today’s information age, Black history is more accessible than ever. A trip to your local bookstore or bookseller website or a public library can uncover both the classics and contemporary literature. The writings of Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, and Alex Haley tell our history. And today’s writers, like Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X. Kendi, and Isabel Wilkerson, explain modern Black lives through a historical lens.
Last year, I shared some of my recent favorites, along with other Black leaders in Pennsylvania. I think you’ll find this list enriching and diverse. And many of today’s best writers, including some I’ve mentioned above, have essays available online.
If elected officials think that they can eliminate conversations and understanding around race in America, they will find that they will face a backlash from a Black-led, multiracial coalition that is the face of today’s America. Perhaps, that is what they most fear. In any case, we can’t and won’t let them get away with it.