Reimagining Black History in the Classroom
with Kaya Henderson of Reconstruction US
Experts say traditional K-12 education struggles to discuss Black history in an accurate, identity-affirming way.
Kaya Henderson, Co-founder and CEO of Reconstruction US, shares how students of all backgrounds can benefit from an education curriculum highlighting African American culture and contributions to American history.
Jan 29, 2021
Anderson: Protests in the wake of the killing of George Ford and others have sparked a national conversation on racial injustice, including the re-examination of how black history is being taught in K-12 classrooms all across the U.S. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Students learn about the African-American heritage and experience beginning with enslavement. But educators say there is a lot more to black history than just oppression and suffering. Joining me to talk about all of this is Kaya Henderson. She is the co-founder and the CEO of Reconstruction US. And, Kaya, thanks for being here.
Henderson: Thanks so much, Tetiana. I'm happy to be here.
Anderson: So I know you say that education should be about more than just teaching reading and math. It should be about teaching identity in an affirming way. But a lot of black students have been left out of that equation. What are some of the things that are being left out when it comes to what they're learning?
Henderson: I think it's really important for young people to see themselves in the things that they're learning and to see other people. And so we talk in the education field about creating windows and mirrors -- windows where they can see out into other communities, but mirrors where they can see themselves, as well. And not enough curriculum puts the African-American experience in a positive light. As you mentioned, it starts with enslavement and suffering and trauma and, in fact, ignores our tremendous, tremendous history of innovation and resilience and building this country and our history in Africa. And so what I've seen in my educational experiences, when students see themselves positively in a curriculum, it actually opens up a world of new possibilities for them. And so we look at other ethnic groups who don't leave it to schools to teach their young people about their identity or their history or their culture. And so at Reconstruction.US, what we are trying to do is create an opportunity for African-American students and all students, frankly, to view the African-American experience very differently.
Anderson: So is there a quick example of a point in African-American history that is positive, that would create a solid point of identity for these students that you can think of?
Henderson: We named the company Reconstruction because there's very little taught about the Reconstruction period, which is the 12 years after the Civil War. In fact, it was one of the most prosperous periods for African-Americans in this country. During the Reconstruction period, we started 37 historically black colleges and universities. We founded 5,000 community schools. 24% of farmland in the United States was owned by African-Americans. We incorporated our own towns. We built our own banks. I mean, we were thriving. And, in fact, we were doing so well that you see the rise of Jim Crow. You see the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. You see the rise of systematic attempts to eliminate this African-American progress. But literally, we came out of enslavement, and in 12 years, we did all of these things. You can't tell me that black people are not amazing and brilliant and resilient. And so when you know that that's the history that you come from, you just think differently about yourself.
Anderson: And why is this important not only for black students to know, but for all students?
Henderson: I think that, in fact, we talk about level playing fields and we talk about people's ability to interact with one another. When one group believes themselves to be inferior or when another group actually insists that a group is inferior, you can't come together to build common bonds. And I think, you know, we have to reset for African-American young people and for young people of all races in this country -- we've got to retell this history differently. What schools are teaching is not -- it is not actually accurate in many cases. And so I think when young people learn that there's a different story out there, when white young people learn that there's a different history than what's being taught, they just have a different level of respect for their African-American peers. I think when African-American young people see themselves in this curriculum in a positive light that shows resilience, that shows brilliance, that looks at black inventors and it looks at black innovators, then they, too, see themselves as innovators and inventors. And it means they operate differently in school. It means they operate differently with their peers. And until we're all at a point where we can see the value in one another, we'll keep having situations where we continue to devalue people based on the color of their skin or their ethnic group.
Anderson: And, Kaya, quickly, where would you like to see all this great work you're doing go next? What's your hope for the future?
Henderson: Well, I started this organization after leading D.C. public schools for 10 years and made a decision to do this outside of school. There are so many demands on time in school and so many competing subjects and competing opportunities. And I wanted the freedom to teach this curriculum the way I want to teach it without constraints. But hopefully what we'll see is school districts -- and we've already seen this -- coming to us and saying, "How can we use your curriculum? How can we incorporate this history in what we do regularly?" In fact, I have parents who are fighting to not have this as an after-school option or as a Saturday option because they actually feel like it's really important for kids to learn this history in school. It creates a certain kind of credibility and value. And so I hope that school districts will learn from us. I think by not doing it within the school context, I have the creativity to create the kind of curriculum that's not just academic, but it's also cultural. We're cooking for the culture, games of the culture, dominos and spades. How do we teach our kids those tried and true traditions? How do we teach our young people our myths and our fables and our legends? We can do the academic piece, and we're doing that very well in a blackity-black kind of way. But we also have to ground our young people not just with history and academics, but with deep, deep cultural knowledge. And so we want to do that. And we hope schools recognize that part of their charge is not just developing kids' test scores, but developing their talents and their passions and their cultural identity.
Anderson: And, Kaya, speaking about learning, where can people learn more about what you do? What's your website?
Henderson: People can come onto our website at www.reconstruction.us and learn everything that you need to know about our amazing offerings.
Anderson: Kaya Henderson, co-founder and CEO of Reconstruction US, thank you for being here.
Henderson: Thank you for having me.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country, be sure to log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.