Black History Month in AP® U.S. History

by Alayna Vernon

Black History Month

After watching Google’s Black History commercial, I was happy to see a reflection of what so many African Americans feel: our “Black History” is simply American History. But what about Black History on the AP® U.S. History Exam, which nearly 500,000 students take every year? I can tell you that ever since U.S. History has been taught, African Americans have been treated like footnotes in the textbooks. As a student, I would participate in history lessons, listen to lectures, and work on assignments, all the while searching for people who look like me in the story of my own country.

History is storytelling. It’s the fabric that forms American society today, and for a long time I was disinterested in the American story because I felt like I was one of the people that history had forgotten. My textbooks were written so it seemed as though American society came to be without much involvement of African Americans. History lessons weren’t relatable to me at all until we got to Black History Month every February.

I’ll never forget the day I was sitting in my AP® U.S. History class, and I opened my textbook to see a familiar painting. It was of an old man and his grandson playing the banjo together. It is a noble painting of great technique. I’d seen it many times before because my grandmother is a devout fan of the artist who painted the picture. Before I could help myself, I was in tears. To my shock and embarrassment, I was crying hysterically in a roomful of my classmates, and not one of them could understand what I was feeling in that moment. A Black man, an artist, had finally been written into our American History textbook for his extraordinary accomplishments. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of Harriett Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglas, but this was the first time that I’d ever seen the work of internationally celebrated artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner, anywhere other than my grandmother’s living room art collection. My grandmother taught me how prolific an artist Monsieur Tanner was. Were it not for her, I wouldn’t know that this painting was in response to the mass lynchings of the Jim Crow era. I wouldn’t know that he spent the majority of his career in France to escape the violence Black people were subjected to at home and that he wanted to be known not as a “good negro artist” but as a great American artist. Tanner’s story is important to my grandmother because he is her distant cousin. It is important to me because it is evidence that Black people are important to the history of our country. Seeing him in my textbook meant that my family tree was part of the American story.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893

Before I got to college, where I took a handful of African American studies courses, most of my Black History education happened at home. I was told by my parents, by my grandmother that Black people did very important things; that we hold an irreplaceable space in history. But my textbooks, my teachers, my lessons, they all contradicted this idea every school year by failing to mention any of our people and their accomplishments—save for February. This is why we needed Black History Month when it was created 50 years ago in 1970 and why we still need it today. Either authors didn’t know about African American contributions to this country’s history, or they were too uncomfortable to submit them in ink. Either way, the moment I saw The Banjo Lesson in that textbook, I knew I’d seen a remarkable thing.

AP® U.S. History Courses Today

The AP® U.S. History curriculum begins with “Period 1,” which starts in 1491 and ends in 1607. Africans were kidnapped and imported to the regions which would later become the United States in the early 1500s. Black people have been in America for every period covered in the course, yet AP®  U.S. History classes fail to reflect this. While offering an expansion of African American topics covered in the College Board’s official Course Exam and Description (Topics 8.6 and 8.10) is progress, I still see more about the politics and economics of slavery and how that shaped our country than how Black individuals, organizations, and towns shaped our country. Prior to college, I’d never even heard of the Black Wall Street, about Tuskegee airmen, or Henrietta Lacks. Until five minutes ago, I didn’t know about Fort Mose of Florida, a mere 138 miles from my house and the first free all-Black settlement, established in 1738 by the Spanish to undermine the British both militarily and economically. Most people have never heard of these significant African American places and people either, much less learned about them in high school. Black History is so much more than the history of the institution of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. Black History is the story of mothers and fathers, teachers and students, inventors and scientists, politicians and writers, and every kind of art and work we have produced in America. Only when we teach this story of Black History can we help young people understand the full contribution of African Americans to the making of this country.

As a teacher, tutor, and mother, I intentionally look for Black History around me and incorporate it into the lessons I teach my students and children. I encourage my colleagues to do the same. Our team at Marco Learning has made it simple for educators to begin, with powerful video content like my performance of Sojourner Truth’s speech, Ain’t I a Woman, and the accompanying lesson plan. AP® students should benefit from history as told by the likes of Carter G. Woodson; students shouldn’t have to wait for African Studies 101 to learn these stories. It’s time to write Black History into American History.

Alayna Vernon

Alayna Vernon has been a tutor for the past 14 years and an instructor for the past 5, specializing in math, science, and language arts subjects for high school students. Alayna has taught test preparation at the Princeton Review for the SAT®, ACT®, PSAT®, AP® Exams, SSAT®, GRE®, and GMAT®. She has also been seen on-screen as a life-style model for the last 10 years and enjoys marrying this passion with that of teaching. Alayna brings her love for her students and her perspective as a mother of four with her every moment that she teaches, whether it is in the classroom or on the set of Marco Learning.

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