Q&A: Co-authors discuss their Black History curriculum and the importance of inclusive education
Peoria Public Schools are now using a new Black history curriculum at the high school level.
In the fall, District 150 implemented the “Black History 365” course of study to comply with an Illinois law requiring more extensive Black history instruction.
District 150 Board of Education Vice President Martha Ross believes Black History Month offers an opportunity to shine a light on the need to teach students about Black history all through the year.
“For years, students have wondered why they only had Black history once a year in February, and so we've been researching trying to find out what we can we do about that,” said Ross. “I think the advantage is that our kids, and not just the Black kids but all kids, will know what contributions that Black people made to this country.”
Ross said a committee of about 12 parents, teachers, community members and students researched to determine which curriculum would be the most comprehensive and beneficial in helping kids understand Black history before making the selection.
Last week, “Black History 365” co-authors Walter Milton and Joel Freeman were guest speakers at a gathering of PPS students to discuss Black History Month and the importance of broadened education for students of all backgrounds.
WCBU reporter Joe Deacon spoke with Milton and Freeman about their approach to developing the curriculum and what it offers for students. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Joe Deacon: What motivated you to develop the “Black History 365” curriculum?
Walter Milton: Well, it goes all the way back. I had an experience in fourth grade where a teacher attempted to teach Black history, and she started with the “benign institution” of slavery. And it ushered so much shame and humiliation to me that I really, really wanted to … I wanted to scream, I want to yell. I went home and talked to my parents about it, and my mom planted a seed that day, along with my father. She said, “Maybe one day you can, you can tell a different story,” and that stayed with me all my life, and so here we are.
And what are your thoughts on being involved in this project?
Joel Freeman: Well, I grew up in Alberta, Canada, so I had a little bit of a different upbringing: left home at 17, hitchhiked 5-6,000 miles around North America, a long-haired hippie, dope-smoking fool. My whole life changed and I ended up becoming one of the first chaplains in the history of the NBA for 20 seasons. The players, their position in life attracts a lot of insincere people, so they're looking at me like, “I'm supposed to spill my guts to that guy? You’ve got to be kidding me.” So they began to test me and to see if I was worthy of their trust, and a lot of the questions were around Black history, which forced me to start studying.
Then Dr. Milton and I, we met a little over two decades ago, when he was in Springfield as the superintendent there. We became lifelong friends at that time, and when he called, he didn't hardly get the question out: “Hey, would you like to join me in doing this Black history curriculum?” I said, “Sure. Let's do it.”
So when did you start on the project?
Milton: We started on the project about, I would say, close to four years ago, but it took us well over 2½ years to complete it. And it was a lot of hard work: 12 to 16 hour days relentlessly. We talked to each other every second of the day, in and out, got a few minutes of sleep, we ate a little bit, and then we're right back at it. It was definitely both of our life’s work; it really was.
So what are some of the key components or significant moments that are taught in this “Black History 365” program?
Milton: Well, one of the things that we wanted to do, we wanted to be different. We didn't want to have just a textbook, we wanted to really have a culture. And I think that I would be remiss and Dr. Freeman would be remiss if we didn't really acknowledge our team: We have a team of excellent educators, leaders, professionals, people who are experts.
What distinguishes us is that we start in ancient Africa and we come all the way past George Floyd. As Dr. Freeman says, we deal with those critical issues that have always vexed our country. We have QR codes built throughout the book; we have music. We just wanted to be different. He has been the curator of many, many major images, we have those throughout the book. So our book is bar none of the best things that I've seen in my field of education, and I just think that I was just used as a vessel to do this work.
Kind of the same question: What do you see as some of the key aspects of this program?
Freeman: Well, first of all, we wanted to have a kind of like razor's edge, we call it “truth-centrism.” We didn't want to bend the arc toward one political party machine or the other; we wanted to stick with the truth, and that's what we did. We wanted to invite the readers – because this engages all ages, from “K-to-gray, but especially the students and educators, and the parents and others – to invite them to four things:
Number one, to become critical thinkers; we didn't want this to be something that was telling them what to think, we want to teach them how to think. Then number two, to become compassionate listeners, and then to become fact-based, respectful communicators. Then the first three helped to build the foundation for the fourth, which is an action-oriented solutionist. That's really what drove us throughout this entire project.
When you say “K-to-gray,” obviously, you're saying from young people all the way through adults. So how many institutions or how many places is your book being used right now?
Freeman: Right now, we have probably close to 100 school districts, public (and) private, and then it's in the teens in terms of colleges and universities. And we're expanding a part of our team in terms of marketing and getting this out to various places. We have faith-based organizations that are searching for a handle during these troubled times to figure out how to go about this.
We’ve developed something called “The Elephant Experience,” which is a way for people to deal with some of the tough topics like: Uncle Tom, three-fifths of a human being, the N word, reparations, should we tear the statues down? We come straight at these topics, and we do it in a way that's elegant, a way that's artistic, and a way that wherever there's a binary choice, we show both sides of the picture, never tipping our hand in terms of what we think, so that students can then use the Socratic method to discuss both sides and then come to some individual and perhaps collective understanding about these topics.
With Critical Race Theory becoming such a hot-button topic across the country, how is your “Black History 365” similar or different from CRT? And why do you think the subject has become so controversial?
Milton: Well, I think that it's sexy right now; I really do. I always say that Critical Race Theory really is not applicable to what we do; we did develop a really good response to the Critical Race Theory, bringing about a lot of clarity. But if you check the origins of Critical Race Theory, it has everything to do with a Harvard (University) graduate course, and I think that people have decided to play on that and to really allow that to spread all over the nation right now.
But believe it or not, we have not had a lot of challenges with Critical Race Theory, because like Joel said, we are “truth- centric,” and no one could argue with that. We're not denouncing someone to elevate someone else. We're just really giving the unadulterated raw truth of what took place in this country and how we came about and how we've evolved to be the great nation that we are.
How important do you believe it is to teach Black history to students of all races?
Milton: It's critically important, because what happens is that we increase the probability of doing away with stereotypes and also having a common ground and understanding in dealing with some of those complexities that really have kept us from being that one nation and we still desire to (be). So all kids can definitely benefit from this information.
Similarly, what do you see is the biggest benefits of learning about the contributions of Black Americans to history and the formation of the country?
Freeman: Well, one thing that we did is the subtitle of our curriculum is: “An Inclusive Account of American History,” – and if we could put neon lights around the word “inclusive,” that's exactly what we’ve done in the entire curriculum. Even the imaging throughout the curriculum, we wanted to represent all cultures so that students would feel like they are a part of this.
One young lady, she was being interviewed – she was an African-American young lady, a student – and she says, “You know, I just realizing that other students will be understanding about my history makes me feel more safe.” That was kind of like an “a-ha!” experience for me, just realizing how impactful this can be on so many different levels. Also, the curiosity of people of other ethnicities and cultures is that they just want to know the truth about things.
How far do you think we've come over the past half-century or so in race relations, and how far do we have to go still?
Milton: I think that we have come a long way, and at the same time we have a long way to go. But I think the path has a lot of potential. It really does, and I think the probability of us getting there is increasingly higher compared to how it was in the past.
Do you think some of the progress that's been made over the past 50 years has been negated over the past maybe five years or so recently?
Freeman: Well, I'm not sure what part social media plays in terms of helping to cause some challenges in this area or to be a reflection; it could be a little bit of both or a whole lot of both. But I just think that things that have happened in our lifetime, we now can see on camera, and these are things that really have caused things to be exacerbated and brought to a whole ’nother level of awareness. And with a new level of awareness comes a new level of understanding and the need for wisdom. People talk about that “knowledge is power” and that's wonderful, but I think wisdom is more powerful, because wisdom is the application of knowledge: Now that we know all this, what are we going to do about it? That's where we come into the picture here in terms of providing a solutional approach. It’s one thing to be problemizing; it's another thing to be solutionizing, and that's what we're all about.
The title of your curriculum is “Black History 365,” and that implies a year-round approach. We are currently observing Black History Month. We've spoken to some Black community leaders who feel it's very important to celebrate Black History Month, and some others who wish there wasn't really a need to single out a single month and limit it in any way. Do you think there's still value in having one month to bring attention to the historic achievements and contributions of Black Americans?
Milton: Well, that's why our title exists: “Black History 365: An Inclusive Account of American History,” because we're seeing just that – that this is an intimate and intricate part of American history, and one of the things that we have to do is recognize it every day. And we have a slogan in our company, that Black History Month is “nothing but the celebration.”
So do you see then there is still some value in acknowledging these contributions during a Black History Month to kind of highlight things but also explain that it needs to be year-round?
Freeman: Yes, Carter G. Woodson was the father of first “Negro History Week” and then which became “Black History Month. One of the things that drove him was to make sure that everything was detailed, every bit of understanding about the history was made available. Without him, we dedicated our book to him because without him we wouldn't have this book.
So in the spirit of Carter G. Woodson, we believe every day is an opportunity. Of course, now with Juneteenth in June, some people now are saying, “well, February and June now become Black history months” and we're just saying, “well, that's good. Those are two celebrations and two anniversaries and two opportunities to really focus on it.” But other than that, it's just a wonderful opportunity to grow and expand and understand the history as it really was.