Anahzsa Jones | Correspondent
“You always hear about Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and all of them, but you don’t really hear about Malcolm X or these different people that were just as important but maybe were not as friendly to white culture,” said William Stewart, a senior studying electrical engineering and President of the Red Poets Society.
Stewart is one of many who believe our education in black history to be lacking on several fronts, and he places the responsibility for this deficit on the shoulders of those in power, who are in the majority, and have historically been white.
For the most part, black history education begins with the slave trade and ends with the civil rights movement, hitting a few highlights along the way. These highlights often include Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and George Washington Carver, along with a few other prominent figures.
Often, the representation of these figures is inaccurate and watered down for public consumption. Whether or not this is intentional is difficult to say, but the impact of this effective ‘whitewashing’ is even harder to deny.
Dr. Jamila Simpson, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Student Services in the College of Sciences, is an adamant supporter of more in depth black history, as it was taught to her in her college years.
“I think we need more representation of what black leadership looks like, but I think we also need authentic representation of who these people actually were,” she said in response to the typical black history curriculum.
Dr. Simpson spoke about her experience and the impact it had on her when she was an undergraduate here at NC State. As the first black female to ever receive a degree in meteorology from NC State in 2000, and the only African American in her major, Dr. Simpson was no stranger to the feeling of being alone that many African American students face upon arrival. “My self esteem was very low coming from my home town. I was often the only black student in most of my classes, and I encountered racism when I got here, too,” Simpson said.
One of the instances she remembers most occurred during black history month.
“I would write African American history facts on a dry erase board on my door every day during black history month…and my RA, who was a white male, came to me and said his girlfriend, who lived in my suite, thought my board was offensive and he wanted me to stop doing it. He told me it wasn’t white people’s fault that black people hadn’t contributed to science and math in this country,” said Simpson. Clearly, this narrow view of our history can have a detrimental impact, not only on African American students but also on the perceptions of the community at large.
“Thomas Edison is credited with the invention of the light bulb, but it was actually a black man who came up with the filament for the bulb…I learned that in fifth or sixth grade and that’s when I started to realize about race and the role that it plays,” said Wesley Coats, a junior studying computer science and the Vice President Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.
When black history is taught in schools, it is most often the case that the accomplishments that are focused on are limited to the ones that impacted the black community. In the fields of science, or mathematics, or anything outside of strictly ‘black’ culture, the information given is scarce or missing entirely. “It’s subconscious, but we’re overcoming messages that we haven’t contributed much, especially in STEM,” said Simpson.
The limited scope of black history shown to students was the inspiration for a poem by William Stewart. The poem speaks on the sanitization of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but also shines light on the issue at hand with the last line, “I am the only black king in their history books.”
“Martin Luther King was the least threatening black leader they could think of. Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary,’ you know, that’s scary to people who are comfortable in their own privilege,” said Stewart.
His poem, “In my name,” is a powerful example of how he decided to be part of the solution. Stewart was adamant that it was not his intention to diminish Dr. King’s legacy or the work he’s done in any way, but simply to acknowledge, simply put, “That’s not all there is to it.”
“I don’t want to speak for people whose experiences I can’t relate to,” Stewart said,” but I hope maybe I can inspire someone to use their voice, or show someone that they have a voice.”