WXXI AM News

Black history doesn't start with slavery, educators say

Feb 24, 2020

When teaching black history, where do you begin? As Black History Month comes to a close, two black educators share differing approaches.

Cilas Kemedjio is the director of the Frederick Douglass Institute at the University of Rochester.

The institute was founded in 1986, after the university’s Black Student Union protested discriminatory treatment of African-American students, and called for a black studies program. The protests were part of a wider movement at universities across the country.

Calvin Eaton, left, of 540 West Main and Cilas Kemedjio of the Frederick Douglass Institute discuss the impact of slavery in the understanding of African and African American history.
Credit Composite: Noelle E. C. Evans and University of Rochester (image provided by Cilas Kemedjio)

Kemedjio, who is from Cameroon in central Africa, said that in the U.S., it’s easier to teach black history starting with the transatlantic slave trade.

But “when you start with slavery, you’re actually starting with pain,” Kelmedjio said. “And you’re starting as (if) the story of black people started with slavery."

So, what do we mean when we say black history? Is it U.S. history or world history?

“People who are more inclined to the Afrocentric, Afrocentricity, they will generally start with the history of Egypt that black people built the pyramids,” Kemedjio said.

Which is exactly what Calvin Eaton is doing at 540 West Main, a community education hub centered around antiracism. For the past two years, Eaton has taught a class during Black History Month that begins with ancient African history.

“For many of us in the black community, that lack of awareness or understanding of our ancestry has really been lacking,” Eaton said. “The class is really positioned to help people understand that.”

Eaton said that by shifting the dominant narrative of black history, and teaching from an African-centered perspective, he hopes to empower and uplift students. 

“The context of history we have even with slavery and even post-slavery and Reconstruction and civil rights is from the position of whiteness,” he said. “So whiteness is the center of that lens.”

As Kemedjio pointed out, when black history focuses on U.S. history alone, important details can be overlooked. For instance, around the time of the Reconstruction era, after the Civil War, significant changes were happening in Africa.

“You know, the colonization of Africa actually happened after the end of the transatlantic slave trade when they were converting (from) what they called the shameful trade to quote-unquote a more legitimate form of trade which mean(t) to colonize Africa,” Kemedjio said.

He added that the irony is that people who were against the slave trade actually believed colonizing would provide a more just form of trade.

For Eaton, he said he’s motivated to dispel myths and misinformation around black history so that injustices of the past won’t be replicated in the future. He also wants to help black students feel more connected to their roots, something he says many African Americans have been deprived of.

“When you don’t have that true identity for some people, that can lead to a road of having low self-esteem or not having as much self-awareness as you should have,” he said. “Being proud of where you come from … well, how can you be proud if you don’t know where those roots are?”

African and African American history have shaped the world and U.S. society. Eaton said that by researching it and centering black perspectives, perhaps we can better understand our current moment in history.