There’s an elephant in the classroom, and it has done a huge disservice to students like me.
I first acknowledged it subconsciously in my middle school years. Social studies and history classes weren’t just academic discourse, they were social and emotional experiences. As I learned about the triumphs and tribulations of history, I only saw African American accounts of hardship – of course, the institution of slavery, Jim Crow Era segregation, and enduring struggle to obtain full civil rights made it hard not to.
I didn’t know it then, but many Black scholars and entrepreneurs existed throughout these times. I like to think of them as elephants. Their brilliance is reminiscent of the majestic pachyderms, while their careers and influence are often invisible in the classroom.
Growing up in San Francisco and attending independent Catholic schools, low levels of racial diversity almost always left me, an ethnically ambiguous student, as the only representation of Blackness in my classrooms. I’ll never forget when my 5th-grade teacher had our class reenact a scene from the book “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry”. My classmates innocuously laughed as they mimicked the dialect of the Logan’s, a Black family living under Jim Crow laws in 1930s Mississippi. I couldn’t articulate it this succinctly at ten years old, but the depictions of the characters weighed on me. They reinforced a monolithic depiction of Black life devoid of any moments of joy, hope, or success.
Finding the Elephants
Since there was little to no Black representation in my classroom content during my adolescence, I took it upon myself to seek this knowledge out in college. Like many people who learned new skills during the pandemic, I immersed myself in Black history, pedagogy, and education reform.
“Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy” by Gholnescar Muhammad called for teachers to redesign their learning plans by looking to the literary practices of people I’d never heard of. I was so unfamiliar with 19th century Black literary societies, that I may as well have been reading fiction.
The Great Migration led more than 300,000 Black Americans to settle across the northeast during the 20th century in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Young and old, literate and illiterate people formed groups that met in church basements, private dining rooms, and auditoriums. These seemingly ordinary people made reading, writing, discussion, and debate a part of their everyday lives, knowing they could use their education as a tool to pursue justice.
Literary groups like the Reading Room Society for Men of Colour and Wide Awake Society differed from the slavery, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights movement eras that I attributed to representing all of African American history. I began to wonder what else I didn’t know.
In my book “Elephant Prints: Reconstructing Our Image of Brilliance“, I contribute my student voice to the heightened dialogue around curriculum reform. The absence of elephants from middle and high school curricula limits intellectual representation for students. When Black scholars and innovators are visible to students, more often than not, they are admired as individuals and exceptions to the rule. We must ensure that their portrayals accurately celebrate their past and present influence.
- Elephants aren’t anomalies. The 19th-century literary societies helped me realize that a large part of elephantdom is centered around community. Histories of the Harlem Renaissance, Black Wall Street, and Seneca Village have far more complexity than a “101 African Americans You Should Know” book can convey.
- Elephants continue to exist. Black scholars and entrepreneurs aren’t relics of a time gone by. In the face of historical tragedies and systemic issues, Black scholarship and entrepreneurship remain alive and well. Within the pool of today’s elephants are creators of products, tools, and platforms aimed at teaching both young students and adults about this brilliance.
- Elephant knowledge is spreading. The mainstream may not fully recognize them, but that hasn’t stopped Black changemakers with a grassroots appeal, like former DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Her company, Reconstruction, hosts virtual classes that situate African Americans in a powerful, creative, and resilient light. As a former tutor, I served PreK-12th grade students who learned the very histories I had to reconstruct my mind to accept years later.
Reconstructing Our Image of Brilliance
Expanding the representation of Black history in curricula will offer students alternatives to the traditionally limited images of intellect present in textbooks and other learning materials. We are most affected by social influences between eight and ten years old, which rarely expand our knowledge of Black histories. After that literature class activity in my 5th-grade classroom, I didn’t consider searching for other representations of families that looked like the Logans. Students need to know that what is taught in classrooms is not all that is worth knowing. So many people are unable to conceptualize a full picture of Black history until adulthood.
Right now, young learners can enroll in supplemental curriculum programs like Reconstruction to access this knowledge and find the missing elephants in the classroom. Adults can also read books or watch movies highlighting Afro-futurism and entrepreneurship, like “Black Panther” and “Self-Made“.
These are good starts, but ultimately, including elephants in mainstream curricula will expose all students to their genius, not just the people who are actively seeking it. Inserting elephants into our lives is the first step toward reconstructing and how we view the brilliance of Black history.