Some people are asking: How can the Philadelphia public school system mandate teaching African and African American history? But others of us are asking: How have school officials justified not teaching it in a school district where nearly two-thirds of all students are African American?
America is so diverse that we should be teaching the stories of all its people, whether it is Greco-Roman history, including Greek mythology; Ireland's potato famine; the exodus of Eastern Europeans to America; or the roles so many other groups played here, including Italians, Germans, Asians and Latinos. This should all be part of the public school curriculum – and rightly so.
Fundamental to the story of America's development, however, is the enslavement of black people and slavery's impact on our economy and social fabric. That story is particularly important in Philadelphia, where 45 percent of the city's 1.4 million residents are African American and another 40,000 to 45,000 are African born.
In the 1960s, when I was in high school in Philadelphia, we were taught European American history. My history book had one page dedicated to the peculiar institution of slavery. It was accompanied by a lithograph of black people picking cotton. Basically, the text read something like this: "Negro slaves lived on plantations in the South where they picked cotton and took care of their master's house and children. They were a happy and nappy people who loved to dance and sing."
There was no historian's explanation of how Africans were captured, shackled, tortured, raped, and sold as chattel. No accounting of the millions of Africans who died during the years of the Middle Passage, when slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean. There was no scholarly dissertation regarding African belief and social systems. There was no discussion of the skills the Africans brought that helped build the American infrastructure. Instead, it was implied that slavery saved African savages.
Those interested in the real history of the black experience have had to seek out bits and pieces of the story, as if retrieving shards of a precious broken vessel or collecting bits of tattered cloth to weave into a complex tapestry.
Once I was browsing in the book department of the now-closed Gimbels department store, and a white salesperson asked me what I was looking for. I explained that I was in search of books on African history. Her response was, "Oh, honey, Africans have no history."
But then, how would she know any different?
Slowly – very slowly – the story is now revealing itself. Due to a recently passed City Council bill sponsored by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, Wachovia Bank has acknowledged that its predecessors utilized slavery as collateral – their basic investment – in the banking business. And bank officials have apologized for that cruel and exploitative past.
Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., who cosponsored the Reynolds Brown bill, introduced legislation last week that goes beyond disclosure. It would require banks in which the city deposits money to disclose whether they have ever profited from slavery and then provide the city with a statement of financial reparations.
Research by local historians also has expanded our awareness of slavery. We now know that George Washington enslaved Africans in the President's House located on what is now the Independence Mall. Is any of this documented history part of the school curriculum?
Next month, as the nation celebrates its independence, a million people are expected to descend on Philadelphia to attend the Live 8 concert and fund-raiser for Africa, billed as the Make Poverty History Campaign. Possibly a billion more around the world will view the concert on television and the Internet. Philadelphia will join London, Paris, Berlin and Rome as a venue for this historic world-class entertainment, linking the city to the future of embattled Africa.
So why are we even debating whether we should teach African and African American history in our schools? The question, really, is how educators here and around the country have been able to disconnect American history and African American history. The two are inextricably bound, one unto the other.