Discovering Forgotten Black Stories: Anger, Pride, And Determination

Feb 21, 2024 12:00:00 PM


I was rushing to catch a plane last year when a piece of Black history stopped me in my tracks at an airport bookstore: a book titled American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men who Became America’s First Paramedics.

I hadn't even read a page of the book, and I instantly felt pride and joy that someone had uncovered another instance of Black excellence. Though, as I eagerly made my way through the book during my flight, anger joined my feelings of excitement and intrigue.

I continue to be angry about the depths to which Black history has been ignored, obfuscated, and outright hidden in America. Now, here we are during another Black History Month. After all the racial justice soul-searching, solidarity statements, and book clubs of recent years, I'm waiting to see who is genuinely serious about honoring Black history and promoting an anti-racist future.

I felt inspired as I read about the pioneering paramedic work of the group of Black men in Pittsburgh, which included several high school dropouts, people with criminal records, and many who had been called “unemployables.” I immediately asked one of the alums of the college prep program I cofounded — TeenSHARP — if she learned about this history during her Emergency Medical Services career pathway program in high school. Her answer was “No,” as I suspected.

It has become a sad annual tradition at TeenSHARP to ask the hundreds of high schoolers we work with from schools nationwide to share how their schools are recognizing Black history during Black History Month. Like other months, their schools typically give Black history weak, uninspired, and surface-level treatment. In some of the states where they live, the situation is even more dire as legislatures in at least 36 states have passed or are pursuing policies that would restrict teaching about race and racism.

However, an essential part of TeenSHARP’s college, career, and life preparation for students is cultivating their power to create and advocate in the face of society’s many injustices. We push them to demand more and not feel they must wait as education leaders preach patience and proffer bureaucratic excuses.

With this mindset, several of our TeenSHARPies were on the frontlines of getting a law passed in Delaware that requires all schools to teach Black history. A few of our students also co-founded a statewide movement —  the Delaware Black Student Coalition — after their schools told them that creating a Black Student Union would be too divisive.

Practicing what we preach to our students, TeenSHARP recently launched a free, self-paced online course, The 2024 Black History Challenge. We've pulled together a wide range of inspiring and informative content students, parents, and educators can use to deepen their knowledge of Black History. The course includes modules highlighting Black people's contributions to science and technology, healthcare, arts and culture, politics and government, activism, sports, and more.

Students deserve to know how Black nurses helped cure tuberculosis, what Greek philosophers learned from Africans, and why and how government policies robbed Black wealth and earning potential for generations. We want to see thousands of students use the course to learn names like Ella Baker, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and Madam C.J. Walker. 

It’s not only necessary for students to open their eyes to the blind spots of American history. School and district administrators and classroom teachers should be lining up alongside them to address their unfinished learning. And they should be joined by the education think tank and policymaking class, who need to be as fired up about our students’ loss of connection to the history of America’s marginalized communities as they are about pandemic learning loss.

Many would be able to learn about thinkers such as Carter G Woodson, the man behind Black History Month, who once wrote:

“The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples.”

Black History Month is a perfect time for our schools to commit to giving all students a high dosage of Black people's beauty, brilliance, and persistence. We will keep demanding much more from the education system. And in the meantime, we will create the learning opportunities our students deserve.

Atnre Alleyne

Atnre Alleyne is the co-founder and CEO of TeenSHARP, an organization that prepares students of color for top colleges and leadership. Atnre previously founded and led an education advocacy organization — DelawareCAN: The Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now.

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