Black History Month should remind us that America’s greatness resounds in the ability of ordinary people to transform the status quo of racial segregation and oppression into a new dawn of racial justice, freedom and citizenship. The study of the black freedom struggle from slavery to Jim Crow to the modern civil rights era and the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement underscores how Americans might enable a brighter future by coming to terms with our racial past.
But many students in Texas learn only some, if any, of this history because the Texas education system does not require students to take at least one annual unit of black history. This needs to change.
Our nation’s history is a melting pot of races and cultures that contributed equally into what America is today. And it doesn’t matter whether the school is public or private. Simply put, more Texans need to learn more about black history. And this includes colleges, universities and other institutions of higher learning.
Perhaps no figure loomed larger in Texas as a trailblazer than Houston-born Barbara Jordan. Jordan represents one of the most important political leaders in American history. She broke color lines and gender barriers as the first black Texas state representative since Reconstruction and as the first southern black female U.S. representative ever.
Jordan distinguished herself, using her inimitable crisp and sonorous voice, during the Watergate hearings as a passionately erudite defender of the Constitution. She co-sponsored voting rights legislation in 1975 that helped extend voter access to Spanish speakers in Texas and the Southwest.
The next year she became the first black person to deliver the keynote address to a major party convention. That speech made her into a national icon and helped pave the way for more racial breakthroughs, most notably the election of President Barack Obama, who first gained national attention after his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
But, despite this progress, race continues to shape the lives of American citizens and institutions. The most recent example is the controversy over the admission by elected officials in several states that they appeared in blackface. Blackface is intimately connected to black history and histories of racial segregation, Jim Crow and white supremacy that continue to harm our democracy.
These officials, most notably Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, should resign. Our political leaders have an ethical and moral duty to support equal citizenship and justice for all. Blackface, through its dehumanization of African Americans, reinforces segregation politically and racial violence at the local level.
Black History Month is, most profoundly, American history. Every student in public and private schools across Texas should be required to take a unit of this history annually. In doing so, we could accelerate not only knowledge of African American history and the struggle for black citizenship, but also enable the deep empathy that comes from recognizing strangers as part of the wider human family.
Texas’ racial history is filled with examples of both racial oppression and racial justice. Students need to understand the impact of racial slavery on the Lone Star State, how the attempt during Reconstruction to guarantee black citizenship failed amid racial violence, and how the modern civil rights struggle helped open doors for not only African Americans but all people. Black history is a pivotal key to unlocking the relationship between race and democracy in Texas historically and how it continues to shape where we live, how we vote, and how we are treated by the criminal justice system.
In times of racial crisis, politicians, educators and community leaders often talk about the need for racial dialogue or a national conversation about race. Such a dialogue should be built on the extensive knowledge of that history and the way it courses through the veins of our larger national identity and collective memory.
By requiring every student to actively engage in the study of black history, Texas could lead the way toward the long-term goal of transforming American race relations for the better.
Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and a professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.