Black is Beautiful

Jordyn Bryant

This month’s guest blog post comes from a University of Washington undergraduate student, Jordyn Bryant, and reflections on learning from a course called, Race Ethnicity and Education.

Black history is rich. Black history is painful and traumatic. Black history is intricate, beautiful, empowering, and full of complexities. It is also overpowering and violent, especially to a young Black student. To a White student it may be shameful and embarrassing. But history is history, right? We must teach history through a lens of neutrality, right? “Teach facts as they have occurred. Incorporate the perspectives of both sides. Don’t make White students feel uncomfortable. Exclude the despicable. Teach the American Dream.” How do we unpack a history as complex and gut-wrenching as Black history? How do we teach a history that is still ongoing? How do we show our students that they are both products of history, and catalysts for meaningful change? 

Manifest Destiny | John Gast | 1872

For decades, American history has been taught from the limited perspective of the victor. We have been taught concepts of Westward Exploration and Manifest Destiny. We learn about our founding fathers, while they look far from being closely related to many of us. Black history is squeezed in between lessons. It is short. It is vague and uninspiring. It is a story of inevitability and peaceful rebellion. Black history should be centered in the history classroom. Black Excellence should be shouted from the rooftops. I argue that in order for this shift to occur, we need more Black history teachers, we need to teach Black literature in a way that is meaningful, and we need to teach Black freedom struggles in a way that is accurate and uncensored.

As we work to facilitate a history classroom that incorporates meaningful, impactful lessons that will leave a lasting impression on the students, we first must start with who is standing before the class. At the University of Washington, I have taken Black history courses by Black professors that were incredibly inspiring. Given their positionality in teaching this history, they were able to share personal anecdotes and connections to the pervasive nature of racism. They were also unafraid to argue that a true retelling of Black trauma involves the exposure of many atrocities committed by White Americans throughout history. 

Data from the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction show that, while Black students make up 4.6% of the State’s K-12 student population, Black teachers (orange) make up less than 2% of the teaching force.

As explained by Gloria Ladson-Billings, “The first reason for naming one’s own reality involves how political and moral analysis is conducted in legal scholarship. Many mainstream legal scholars embrace universalism over particularity.” The beauty of particularity is that it humanizes history. It reminds students that they are active members of history and have the agency to determine the trajectory of their own future. By having a personal relationship with this history as a victim of systemic oppression, Black teachers are the most qualified to convey such a dynamic to students of all backgrounds.

Black history is not, and should not, need to be confined to a standard social studies course. The teaching of Black history through authors such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Octavia Butler can be an extremely powerful tool in conveying the emotions of those experiencing slavery, or those grappling with Eurocentric ideals of beauty today. Through literary devices and personal narratives, the incorporation of Black writing into a language arts course can be quite effective in conveying the ways that systems of oppression affect the individual. In Morrison’s writing, for example, she grabs her audience by the throat and forces them to hear the cries of Pecola and feel the rage of Cholly in The Bluest Eye

A Google search of most beautiful women demonstrates the Eurocentric ideals of beauty.

In an academic context, Black history is often conveyed through the telling of concrete timelines and seemingly justified circumstances surrounding economic necessity. By utilizing the mode of storytelling and centering the voices of the oppressed, this history can be conceptualized in a way that is honest and vulnerable. As this history is characterized by racist structures, struggles for freedom, and overt discrimination, students find this does not stray far from what Black people continue to experience today. A major flaw in our education system lies in the way that history is taught as stories of the past with little connection to where our country is currently. As students, we deserve to learn that protests and resistance from the Civil Rights Era have directly informed the ways that our people fight against police brutality and mass incarceration today. 

In I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin discussed the intricate relationships he had with major figures like Malcom X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the film we must grapple with the ways that Black bodies are slammed to the ground during protest, and Black activists are unjustifiably murdered for seeking basic human rights. In the classroom, this history is diluted. Though less painful to experience, we are stripped from the reality that Black people have a history that is violent and intergenerationally traumatizing. Students deserve to know the whole truth, so they have a toolkit to disrupt such systems of oppression that continue to harm our people.

When such systems are so pervasive and prevalent today, the teaching of the origins of such inequities must be exceptionally accurate. Rather than continuing a cycle of silencing the Black voice and the Black experience in America, the classroom must be a space where this story is nurtured and prioritized. This is essential in our undoing of generations of racism on the end of the perpetrator, and sorrow on the end of the abused. History cannot be neutral. To make an attempt to teach in such a way is an act of violence. Young children of any background deserve to know the truth of our country’s darkest histories so that they grow into rounded, well-informed adults. Black history requires a level of discomfort and a hefty amount of reflection. 

However, once the student has come to understand the pain of Black history, they can then appreciate The Black Renaissance, and Black joy for true beauty that it represents. For so many years, Blackness has been criminalized and criticized by our society, while turning a blind eye to the culprit of such misrepresentation. By turning the mirror onto the true history of our nation, we can truly begin to take steps towards an informed and impactful future.

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