Black History is American History

This past week, I made a guest visit (via Skype) in Professor Lori Patton Davis’ History of American Higher Education course at the University of Denver. I was asked to talk about an article that I recently wrote on stereotypes of Black college presidents. The article focuses on the origins of these stereotypes and illuminates the complex actions of HBCU presidents during the civil rights era. The class members asked great questions that not only demonstrated that they had engaged the article, but that they were critical thinkers. After about 20 minutes, one student raised her hand and asked the question that I am asked roughly once a week.

How did you get interested in doing research related to HBCUs? Why are you so passionate about African-American education?

This is a great question and even though I am asked quite often, I always answer and I am not bothered by the question at all. It seems reasonable. I answered the student’s question by reflecting on how I came to the topic. My first exposure to HBCUs was in a class called the History of Higher Education and Philanthropy. A wonderful mentor and professor, John Thelin, assigned James D. Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South to the class. This book changed my life. As a result of reading it, I eventually decided to become a professor. Anderson’s work also ignited an interest in African-American history that has not stopped since I was a graduate student.

I was particularly struck by Anderson’s treatment of African-American history. Rather than only seeing Blacks as victims of racism and oppression, he portrayed Blacks as leaders who took initiative and shaped their own lives. He crafted a story that was multi-faceted and complex. Even though I had a bachelor’s and master’s degree and was about halfway through a Ph.D. program, Anderson was the first author or person to expose me to this perspective. I grew up in an all-White rural community in Michigan in which people, including my own father, perpetuated stereotypes about African-Americans daily. When I was young, I was told that Martin Luther King Jr. was a terrorist and a rabble rouser, that slaves were happy in the fields and countless other lies. Although I knew inherently that these lies were wrong, it would not be until I read Anderson’s book that I would really learn about the impact of African-Americans on the United States and education.

I started with the Anderson book and then devoured everything else I could find. I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of my understanding of African-American history and culture. Some people think it is odd (mainly because I’m White), but I felt cheated by my education. I was angry at my past teachers and schools for not teaching me about American history in full. I only learned one side of history. It was not until I took it upon myself to learn about African-Americans, Latino, Native American and Asian history that I was able to truly understand the interconnectedness of all of us — whether good or bad.

As we come to the close of another Black history month, I hope all of us will see the accomplishments and struggles of African-Americans as an integral part of American history — a history that we all have an obligation to learn and know.