With this next generation of kids, let’s make sure they learn more about those hidden figures.
I’d always prided myself in telling folks not from Detroit that Black history was taught all year-round, every year, in our public school system. Every so often on Twitter, someone asks, “When did you have your first Black teacher?” and Detroiters always answer either kindergarten or first grade. If you were enrolled in Detroit Public Schools within the last quarter-century, you always had Black teachers who taught where we came from.
I dreamed of being a writer during the Harlem Renaissance. I wondered what kind of shoes Jan Matzeliger would wear, and I knew there had to be a Marian Anderson before an Aretha Franklin. And the education in the classroom was supplemented by what I got at home.
My mother came of age at the height of the afro-tipped “Black is beautiful” ‘70s and got even more woke during the kente-wrapped Afrocentric ‘90s. Trips to the Shrine of the Black Madonna bookstore were frequent, and that’s before you even get to the cultural traditions taught in the Black church – where we were every Sunday.
But I feel like there was something missing from my upbringing, and that’s something I’m a bit embarrassed to say at my big age and in the heat of our current moment: I have no idea about the teachings of Angela Davis. Yes, that Angela Davis.
You see, I know who Angela Davis is. But I only know the name and some of her photos. Ask me about her, and I’d probably answer along the lines of images of a leaping ‘fro, a side-by-side photo with Gloria Steinem, a vague connection to the Black Panthers … somehow – and that’s where I begin and end.
Davis’ name has been spoken more in the last few weeks than ever in my life, and I can say this for certain. All throughout grade school, I distinctly remember learning about all the other great Black women in our history: Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, Coretta Scott King, Zora Neale Hurston, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Madame C.J. Walker. I struggled to recall if Davis was anywhere in my various curricula. I turned up nothing.
I wasn’t the only one. I asked my Facebook friends when they first heard of Angela Davis. The vast majority answered they heard it at home, and not the classroom – unless they had taken a women’s studies or Black history course at the college level. Like I said, I know who she is. I just don’t know who she is. And I suspect many people don’t, either.
It could be, and I’m only theorizing here, because Davis’ ascent was too recent for some of us, and therefore really wasn’t history yet. If Davis became Davis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she would not have appeared in my ninth-grade history textbook in 1999, which was likely written more than a decade before.
It could also be that Black history, even in a public school system like Detroit, is never fully taught at the grade school level. We’ve seen recently how many critical events in our history have been overlooked or ignored by teachers: The destruction of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” the Philadelphia MOVE bombing, the hidden figures of NASA, none of them ever mentioned during my days at Renaissance, Detroit’s No. 1 high school.
My theory is that Davis’ personification lies at the intersection of so many ideologies that teachers may be flustered on how to try to boil her down – or maybe they just don’t think someone like Davis is the preferred image of her teachings.
In a recent video, during the midst of international uprising when several are looking to Davis for guidance and wisdom, she describes herself as a “communist, abolitionist, internationalist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, Black, queer, activist, pro-working class, revolutionary, intellectual, community builder.” Let’s break that down a little.
The image of feminism in the American public system is usually Susan B. Anthony and others related to women’s suffrage. Never would Davis, or even Parks or McLeod Bethune for that matter, be classified as feminists in their own right in the average U.S. history class. Communism is barely mentioned in classrooms that only preach the two-party system, one that’s rooted in a whitewashed history to begin with.
When I think of when I was taught about the working class, things like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – and not anything related to any recession within the last four decades – comes to mind. And queer? Other than a passing acknowledgement that James Baldwin was actually gay or some scenes in the The Color Purple novel, you can forget it.
Is it time to update history books, or at least how American history is taught even if the actual texts aren’t up to date? Yes, and that conversation has long been happening – often to no avail. But is it also time for Black school districts like Detroit’s to embrace radical Black figures like Angela Davis and enlighten students to the fact that Black women can be Marxists, can be advocates for social justice and that such ideas can extend beyond the black-and-white civil rights era? Yes, that as well.
Davis, as well as the Black Panthers, Shirley Chisholm, the integration battle in Detroit Public Schools, the late ‘60s rebellions in urban cities and the beginnings of affirmative action, among so many others, need to be incorporated into history classes just as much as the MLKs and the Frederick Douglasses.
Public school systems – you hope Dr. Nikolai Vitti is listening here – should be preparing now to fully inform a new generation of students who are going to first hear about Davis through a tweet or TikTok video and not get the full story, but can get full context in the classroom if they had it available to them.
And, dare I say it, schools shouldn’t be afraid to flirt with, at the very least, teaching students the nuances of capitalism, communism, socialism and Marxism are so that they have some idea what they’ll be trying to explain later on.
In the meantime, I’m going to, for the first time, watch the documentary The Black Power Mixtape for a greater understanding of Davis, as well as do some more research of my own beyond her Wikipedia page. Part of this, too, is saying out loud that we don’t know everything and everybody. But since Davis’ time in the spotlight has been renewed, I’d like to be in the audience.
Aaron Foley is a journalist and author, was editor of BLAC Detroit from 2015 to 2017 and the City of Detroit’s first chief storyteller from 2017 to 2019. Argue with him on Twitter at @aaronkfoley.