When February rolled around last year, Ebele Azikiwe was in sixth grade, and it was time to study Black culture. Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and a debate on slavery were all on the curriculum at the time.
She said it was the same as the year before and the year before that, which I’m sure many of us can relate to.
After George Floyd’s death in May, she wrote to her school’s administration in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to request that she be given more than the same lessons.
Ebele said in an interview, “We learned about slavery, but did we go into the roots of slavery?” she explained, “You learned about how they had to sail across, but did you learn about how they felt being tied down on those boats?”
Little did she know that her letter was forwarded from the principal to the superintendent, quickly spreading and making headlines, prompting promises to include more Black history courses in the curriculum.
Many educators say they’ve had a serious demand from students for more comprehensive Black history lessons beyond what’s currently available in the months after Floyd’s assassination in Minneapolis. Legislation calling for more equitable education has been enacted or is in the process of being implemented by legislators and states.
Usually, cultural awareness was the subject of the previous generation of courses, but recently, Schools discovered that students also had financial, cultural, and ethnic blind spots, according to Maurice Hall, dean of the College of New Jersey’s arts and communications school and a social justice scholar.
According to Hall, Growing up with a dominant viewpoint can lead to the belief that the way a particular community sees the world “is in fact the right way.”
In December, Connecticut passed legislation requiring high schools to offer Black and Latino studies courses. New Jersey, which already included some diversity education lessons in its learning requirements, became the newest state to pass legislation requiring school districts to provide diversity and inclusion training last month.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a number of other states, including Washington and Virginia, have bills pending that would make similar improvements.
According to Michael Conner, the superintendent of Middletown, Connecticut, the influence of Floyd spread to schools, students organized marches to bring race to the forefront of educators’ minds.
Conner describes a “deficit” context, as opposed to an “asset” context, in which African American and other non-European history focuses on how those cultures were oppressed, while Europeans are viewed as culturally competent.
He mentioned learning about the same handful of prominent African-American figures as 12-year-old Ebele.
“When I look at my education, the only time I learned about Black history in school was during the month of February,” he said. “I learned about my culture at the dining room table with my mother and grandmother.”
Districts who want to incorporate diversity into their curricula must now figure out how to do so and what that looks like.
The education department in New Jersey is expected to develop sample activities and services for districts. Some schools in the region, as well as elsewhere, are adding books to the curriculum or exploring them in new ways.
Dan Raucci, an English supervisor in Middletown, noted that Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” has long been a 10th-grade staple. Students and teachers are debating if Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defends a Black man accused of raping a white woman, is a “hero of today, or of that era?”
However, the district also introduced new titles, such as Jason Reynolds’ novel “The Boy in the Black Suit,” which follows a Black adolescent as he struggles with grief.
The revisions were made before the Connecticut legislation went into effect in 2020, but last year’s events highlighted the need to update the curriculum.
The law in New Jersey aims to create a safe atmosphere “regardless of race or ethnicity, sexual and gender identities, mental and physical disabilities, or religious beliefs.” It also looks at unconscious bias, also known as implicit discrimination.
Some right-wing groups were concerned that the government was pressuring students to follow ideologies. The conservative Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey was among those who spoke out against the bill.
Last year, Shawn Hyland, advocacy director, said in a statement, “Students should learn to be respectful of others’ beliefs and backgrounds based upon their unique experiences and cultures,” also adding that, “However, ‘diversity’ training in public schools are the very opposite of respect.”
Conservative states, unlike liberal New Jersey and other states that have passed laws requiring curriculum diversity, may object to such curricula. Iowa lawmakers have already passed a bill prohibiting school diversity instruction, and Idaho lawmakers have voted to cancel a higher education budget over university diversity programs.
However, Ebele’s mother, Rume Joy Azikiwe-Oyeyemi, 38, was taken aback by the outpouring of support for her daughter’s efforts. She said that she had no idea so much progress could be made in such a short period of time, “As her mom, I am beyond proud,” she said. “What’s next?”