Black History Month: Learning History in its 'Fullest Context'
Last year I wrote a blog post for MCAN called “A Brick in the Foundation of Equity” in which I spoke about the institution of Black History Month as an important milestone in the world of college access – it serves as a precedent to hold departments of education accountable at both state and national levels. In 2020, I honor this educational landmark by sharing history, both on a personal and cultural level, reminding everyone that there is still considerable work to be done.
A 2019 article in the New York Times by civics reporter Keith Meatto compiled a list of resources that reveal a harrowing fact about the state of American Education: schooling is still separate and unequal; years after 1954 and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, when the Supreme Court unanimously decided that such a reality is unconstitutional and therefore illegal.
This reminds me of my junior year at Michigan State University in 2005, when I signed up for the course Historical Approach to Contemporary Issues. In that process, I tracked down the professor my mother implored me to seek out if he hadn’t already retired. This man and future mentor of mine, Dr. Richard Thomas, had been her professor years before when she was a first-generation college student at MSU. He would become one of the greatest influences in shaping the man I became. I recognize the inherent privilege that comes with being a second-generation student. However, Dr. Thomas’ presence helped my development as a college-going Black man and shared wisdom that I could pay forward to the next generation of college-going students of color.
Having Dr. Thomas as a mentor meant having a trusted adviser who not only looked like me, but who also grew up in my same hometown of Detroit. Black students often find themselves at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) facing a dearth of faculty invested in their success. That, paired with a multitude of other adverse obstacles, can be directly linked to lack of African-American student retention at many of these colleges. When I found myself on the cusp of flunking out of MSU, I had someone who could motivate me to keep fighting and stay focused. That led to me making the honor roll for the first time — two months after approaching Dr. Thomas to talk about my academic standing.
But most importantly, Dr. Thomas taught me about the importance of history and to always have proper context when discussing my worldview.
In his same class, I would learn more about Brown vs. Board than I had ever been taught in my high school classroom. I learned the name of Charles H. Houston, a pioneer in law who for 25 years, created litigation strategies aimed at racial housing covenants and segregated schools. He trained a litany of young lawyers (including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall) on how to create a compendium of cases that would successfully dismantle the legal theory set in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Those crucial lessons helped me solidify why college was important. College was where I learned about a lot of Black History for the first time. It made me wonder how many Black students would graduate without having the opportunity to learn about our collective past because of how deeply the practice of integration has been compromised — despite 66 years since the Supreme Court decided “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
This thought renews my faith in MCAN’s mission to increase college readiness and participation for all Michigan students, the work of AdviseMI advisers who maximize college-going opportunities for young people, and the work of dedicated schools that partner with AdviseMI. Because of these efforts, more students will have the chance to learn their history in its fullest context, regardless of race or background.