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Black History

Rarely do history classes teach children of color about the cultural contributions of their forebears, but State Senator Jesse Hamilton and Assemblywoman Diana C. Richardson have proposed a bill that will require New York State schools to teach children about Black history from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Hamilton introduced bill S.5454 in the Senate on March 29 after conferring with elected officials, civil rights leaders and educators, many of whom expressed similar frustration with an education system that skims over landmark rites in American history such as the Harlem Renaissance intellectual movement or the legacy of Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American congresswoman. As such, African-American youth often lack a counterpart role model aside from those dedicated during Black History Month.

Senator Jesse Hamilton has floated the bill in the Senate

“I think educators need to realize that in certain communities of color whatever they’re doing is not resonating,” Hamilton told The Brooklyn Reader after a press conference at the Weeksville Heritage Center on Buffalo Avenue, the site of one of America’s first free black communities in the 1800s. “It’s not liberating young kid’s minds as far as having them be more creative, more engaged in the learning experience,” he continued.

Hamilton urged the state to hire more teachers of color – particularly African-American males, who comprise just 8 percent of all New York City teachers. The senator, who represents District 20 in Brooklyn, said that he never took a class with a teacher of color until he studied for his B.A. at Ithaca College.

“It’s so important that our young people know who they are and know their legacy,” said City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, who appeared at the end of the press conference to show her support.

City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo commended the bill

Details on how the bill will be implemented are still fuzzy in terms of obtaining authorization from the New York State Education Department to re-evaluate the curriculum, as well as garner the support of the Board of Regents which decrees education policy in New York State.

Aware of the red tape he is up against, Hamilton said he is not looking to gut the syllabus. Rather, the Black history component should develop organically. “If it’s an English class we can talk about great African American writers and their importance throughout the world,” he said as an example.

To ease the rollout politically, Hamilton is toying with the idea of a pilot program starting with the schools in his district, encompassing the neighborhoods of Brownsville, Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Gowanus, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, South Slope and Sunset Park.

Reverend Kevin McCall voices his approval of the bill

The bill is especially pressing in light of a racially polarized political climate, said Reverend Kevin McCall, national crisis director of the civil rights organization National Action Network, who spoke during the press conference.

“I commend state Senator Jesse Hamilton and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson for putting forth the effort [in the face of] of the things that are happening across this country, in the face of the enemy and in the face of hypocrisy,” he said.

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Kindra Cooper

Kindra Cooper is a freelance journalist and copy editor. She hails from Indonesia, where she wrote features for The Jakarta Post, Indonesia's largest English-language newspaper. Once in New York, she covered...

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  1. It would be great if this bill passed. But as someone (maybe it was John Lewis?) pointed out, this isn’t black history, it’s American history. We don’t need to, and we shouldn’t, keep talking about all the things that the black community has done and experienced for hundreds of years in this country as if it’s a separate from the rest of America’s history; it’s as much a part of our past as anything that white people have done.

  2. As a participant that day we sang U is IKU You are your Ancestors They are you. Part of the words I wrote came about by me doing research for the students where my daughter attended P.S. 71 for a Black History Month presentation for the school students and parents. Several students would describe an invention which we had on stage or a photo and who invented it. I also brought drummers and dancers which the children participated in. My dad Arnold “Doc” Wiley is a part of the Harlem Renaissance so I brought in film of him singing and tap dancing as well to show we are our Ancestors. I did this every year I spoke with The Senator saying how important it was for the children to hear about accomplishments to encourage them to do the same in their lives. “How Great A History WE ARE yes it matters to know. Do not dismiss it for with it OUR people will grow” – from U Is IKU By Family In Deed

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