Wendy Weiss, Programs and Membership Coordinator
Let’s get right to it. History is not meant to make us comfortable. As an American society, we are being asked to reconsider how we view and teach the history of Black Americans. As Unitarian Universalists, we are asked to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. At the intersection of these values we have an opportunity to view ourselves, our inclusive history, with honesty and a realistic acceptance of truth.
I have a friend in Chicago, where I grew up, who works for a non-profit organization called Facing History and Ourselves. She was recently interviewed on their local PBS station along with a State Representative on the topic of how to integrate Black history into public education. The ideas expressed also pertain to how adults and communities can continue to learn about and observe Black history. These important messages are ones being raised and echoed by educators and Black leaders in our communities and in our nation as a whole:
• Focus on Black heritage and culture. Black history does not begin with slavery in America. Illinois State Rep. La Shawn Ford states: “People should know Black heritage, and the culture of Black people, and our history doesn’t do that in our schools in America.” This includes normalizing and centering Black success and leadership and speaking to Black liberation.
• “Black history is American history, it is our history, and that all educators have a responsibility to teach that history in its fullness year round,” notes Maureen Tatsuko Loughnane, executive director of Facing History and Ourselves.
• Contextualization. How history is taught and who teaches that history has to be understood in the interplay of the identities of the teachers (and educational agencies) with the identities of the students.
• History education that includes the details of lesser taught Black historical events, like the Little Rock Nine, that gives students the opportunity to see their potential for being able to shape American society right now. Loughnane advocates, “It helps young people see that they have agency. They don’t have to wait to be able to vote to have an impact on society. Those nine young people in Arkansas were really able to affect change.”
We can consider how all of this applies to us now as we look around at the society that our history has created. And, we can become more aware of and skilled in how we are going to interact with the history that is being made during our lifetimes. Here in Knoxville, Vice mayor Gwen McKenzie’s African-American Equity Resolution was just unanimously approved by the City Council this past December. This resolution would begin to remedy the damage done to the Black community in the name of urban renewal from 1959 through 1974. The result of that urban renewal was urban removal of a thriving Black community and business district, known as The Bottom.
This destruction of decades ago is one that still impacts Knoxville’s Black community today. While the African American population is 17% of Knoxville’s total population, its rate of poverty is 42%, the highest in the Southeastern states. We need to look realistically at history to see exactly what contributed and continues to contribute to this disparity. Black leaders and communities know too well the facts and data around this.
So our turn in history at this time is to learn from African American leaders how to support the repairs and remedies needed by these communities. I’ll name a few below for now and invite you to join us in discussing this and other resources and actions we can take to not only honor Black culture and heritage, but to continue the work right here in Knoxville to support the African American community in co-creating a history that will include equity, liberation and a re-envisioned understanding of our shared American identity.
Adult RE: Thursday Evening Conversations
Feb. 25, 2021 6:30-8 pm Zoom
Honoring Black History and Liberation
Local organizations and resources:
Contact Wendy if you would like the Zoom link to participate on Feb. 25: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo of Ethel and James Beck, leaders of Knoxville's black community and philanthropists whose work influenced the establishment of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. Knoxville History Project