Black History Month is a time for celebration, not polarization. Historian, author and scholar Carter G. Woodson started what would become Black History Month in 1926 as a time to recognize the often-overlooked contributions of African Americans throughout history.
In doing so, he sought to champion “the Negro in history” and “the history of the world, void of national bias, race, hate and religious prejudice.”
Only through a diversity of voices and viewpoints can we achieve a history free from bias. To get there, there are challenges to overcome across this nation. The recent public uproar over Critical Race Theory and the banning of certain books across several states is a case in point.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the legal scholars who created the framework for Critical Race Theory, explains that it “is based on the premise that race is socially constructed, yet it is real through social constructions.”
An example is redlining. Started in the 1930s, government officials drew lines around neighborhoods based on racial composition and deemed those areas “poor financial risks.” This action created a cascade of negative consequences for African Americans and other people of color who were denied mortgages, insurance, credit cards and student loans. While the practice was banned in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the effects are still felt today.
This proves a key tenet of systems thinking, which is that every system functions exactly as it was constructed. It is sometimes easier to say that a system is broken than to acknowledge that we, as a society, constructed a system designed to exclude some of our fellow citizens, including my elders and ancestors, from opportunities to accrue wealth and achieve financial security.
As the first Black commissioner of education for the State of New Jersey, I was responsible for setting standards to ensure that local school districts teach the history of the LGBTQIA community, disability rights, the Holocaust, and African American and Latinx communities, to ensure that students learn our shared history from a diversity of viewpoints.
Students across the country deserve the opportunity to examine their individual and our collective past. As we examine our history, we also must recognize that we are all also writing history — the good, the bad, and everything in between.
I believe we can acknowledge our flaws while still celebrating our rich culture. Our diversity is our greatest strength, and an honest examination of our shared history strengthens our nation rather than depletes us.
As the first Black president of Kean University, I can tell you that great responsibility comes with being the first. Making history comes with a price. Though all new leaders usher in change, those who are first are closely scrutinized and harshly judged for doing things differently.
I see the world through the lens of my lived experiences, which naturally impact my leadership. I believe strongly that we must deconstruct the myths that have developed around Critical Race Theory to ensure students at all levels have access to the texts that capture our histories.
Now, more than ever, we must make sure our stories, even the more painful parts like slavery and Jim Crow, are not erased under the guise of banning Critical Race Theory.
Through a close examination of our different perspectives, we can begin to shape a narrative free from bias as Woodson described. The students of our great nation, from pre-k to college, have a right to learn about people of all races and backgrounds who have shaped the current world in which we live.
Learning about history helps us understand the lived experiences of others, even and especially those who are nothing like us. The more we study history, the more we come to understand that everything is connected. Black history is American history.
Lamont O. Repollet Ed.D. is the president of Kean University.