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My textbook approach to navigating Black history the right way

It wasn’t until I attended “Twitter University” and went to college when I realized: I’m not satisfied with the Black history I’ve been taught.

I’ve learned a lot more on social media (through verification, of course) than I did in over two decades of school. I was born and raised in Washington Heights, NY. The Heights has a large population of Dominicans and it was all I knew.

I remember coming across a few dark-skinned Black students throughout elementary, middle, and high school, but their presence wasn’t very common. I was so engulfed in my Dominican experience that I never considered the rest of the Black history I wasn’t learning.

One thing I blame it on is textbooks.

Grade-school textbooks suck

I spent so much time reading them, but I still found myself not really getting what I wanted. This would eventually result in a culture shock by the time I got to college.

I noticed textbooks portrayed Black people as primitive, with the exception of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center gave the book The American Pageant, a text widely used for AP history classes, a score of 60% for how it denotes Black slavery. The book uses the term “mulatto” to describe Blacks, which is actually a racial slur.

CBS conducted a two-month investigation on how Black history is taught in the United States and had an interesting finding: enslaved Africans referred to as “immigrants” in 1775.

Saying that enslaved Black people immigrated implies they traveled by choice. The reality is, they were forced and came to the U.S. in chains.

blm history

Before college

My encounters with Black history didn’t really begin until my U.S. History class in 11th grade. Prior to, I learned a lot about ancient global history–you know, Rome and Greece. It wasn’t until my woke ass U.S. History teacher, Mr. Espin, put us on to the real Black history.

As an afro-Dominican himself, the information I was learning felt authentic. Sure, anyone can teach a history class, but those who experience it have a stronger connection to it. Black teachers teach Black students on purpose.

For instance, I remember everything he taught us about segregation in the Jim Crow south which sparked a thought recently: we are still segregated. I went on a bike ride from 59th Street and second avenue in Manhattan to the Willis Avenue Bridge in The Bronx and I journaled some findings.

I saw corporate buildings, updated apartment complexes, and only white people before I got to about 100th Street. Then, I started seeing more Black and people of color, project buildings, and corner bodegas. The vernacular even changed. I went from hearing wine bottles clink in Trader Joe’s bags to “YERRRR”s.

While this may seem simple and known to others, it took me back to my 11th-grade classroom with Mr.Espin. That goes to shows the impact of learning history I didn’t know I was yearning for and now apply to reality. Mr.Espin has been an educator for over a decade in the NYC Department of Education.

What I learned about Black history in his class for a year taught me more than any other institution ever did.

The culture shock

I call my undergraduate years “The Culture Shock”. When I stepped foot into SUNY Old Westbury in August 2013, I was finally in the minority, as far as nationality. Most of my peers were dark-skinned Black people. I remember thinking to myself that this will finally be the time I learn about my history from others who have been affected by it.

The conversations about unity and police brutality were frequent to avoid racist attacks. I instantly started making connections to what I learned in U.S. History to what my peers undergo in their everyday lives. I also thought about how systems oppression affects all groups of color and I was combatting that by being in college.

I remember being exposed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in college; my campus had an active chapter. Just the existence of the organization in my school showed me how the Black community upholds its history.

My perspective on the world changed forever after I graduated college–I learned we are not a monolith but we all part of a system that wasn’t designed for us. Unity and knowledge of our history are very important.

As a journalist

Verifying information and sources is paramount to being a fair journalist. In the age of information, we have access to a lot of resources. Sure, I can google “Black history” or “transatlantic slave trade”, but I need to ensure I’m getting true information. One way I verify this is by speaking to experts and utilizing credible sources like books written by Black authors.

One recent method I started employing is speaking to my older family members. Some of them, like my grandmother, experienced Trujillo’s regime as an adult. Therefore, she has first-hand accounts of what that time period was like in the Dominican Republic.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement have incentivized me to verify everything I read online. As a journalist, I want to make sure I’m spreading accurate information. Most importantly, I want to tell the stories that will be added to my history.

I have a major duty: to continue educating myself on Black history and to contribute to its truth for future generations.