Photo of Kweisi Mfume via Wikipedia
On the first day of Black History Month 2023, two lawmakers from the State of Maryland called for a broader recognition of Black history as an essential part of the American experience. The legislation, if passed, would direct the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to dedicate more resources to amplify Black voices and help give Black history the place it deserves. The latest push comes amidst an ongoing conservation backlash against race-conscious education, especially on elementary and high school levels.
The State of Maryland has a long and proud history of Black residency. One of the founding states, Maryland was home to Mathias de Sousa, the first African-American to ever serve in a North American legislative. It was also the place where the original ‘Uncle Tom’ story took place. Despite being a slave state on the border, Maryland ultimately sided with the Union but remained part of the cultural South until the desegregation era. Figures such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Justice Thurgood Marshall all hailed from the state, which today has a Black population of around two million, or 30% of the state total.
The latest piece of legislation was introduced by long-term Representative Kweisi Mfume in the House and long-term Senator Ben Cardin in the Senate. Both figures belong to the Democratic Party and Mr. Mfume has previously served as the President of the NAACP from 1996-2004.
The bill was introduced to the Congress on February 1st. The legislation, if passed, will create a 12-member council of presidential appointees tasked with advising the NEH on promoting Black voices, further the recognition of Black history and culture in the classrooms, and generate national understanding of Black contributions to the United States. Senator Ben Cardin explained on Twitter: “Any kind of censoring or shielding students from #BlackHistory is a disservice to our nation & the people who came before us. Black History IS this nation’s history.”
Representative Mfume said in a statement accompanying the bill: “We must ensure that Black history is told fully and accurately in America. While the truth of our journey may not be the easiest to tell, it should be protected and celebrated because the story of African American people is intricate and integral to the story of the United States of America.”
The latest effort comes amidst what will be remembered as an intense and sustained conservative backlash against the teaching of Black history as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement in the early-2020s. At least 19 states have since banned education curriculum containing the so-called ‘Critical Race Theory’ (mostly around 2021), an umbrella used by MAGA Republicans to denote any race-conscious teaching of American history.
More recently, a new AP course on African-American studies has received sharp criticism from the Republican leadership. The course is being taught in Maryland at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, one of the only 60 schools in the country to participate in the pilot program. Senator Cardin has expressed his pride and support for the course to be taught in Maryland. It was recently revised to accommodate conservative concerns, and it is hard to tell the final form that will eventually find its way to the nation’s educational system.