Amir Gilmore: ‘I want a broader view of Black history’
We asked Amir Gilmore of the Washington State University College of Education to talk about Black History Month: what it means to him, how he’d like to see Black history taught in the United States, and what he thinks is important for people to know about Black history. Gilmore is the college’s associate dean of equity and inclusion, and assistant professor of cultural studies and social thought in education. Originally from New Rochelle, New York, he earned a PhD from WSU in 2019.
- What does Black History Month mean to you personally?
It’s a time to focus on the achievements of Black people, not just in the United States but across the world. One of the first questions I usually ask folks is, “When you think of a famous Black person, who do you think of?” Maybe the first person they say is Martin Luther King, they might give you Barack Obama. We need people to think about all the accomplishments of Black people and the beauty of what Black people have contributed. When I think of Black history, I think of joy. Despite some of the horrific things that have happened and continue to happen to Black people in this country, we’ve always found a way to survive and thrive and embrace the beauty of ourselves and who we are.
- As someone who has studied education extensively, what do you think American students need to learn about Black history?
Our knowledge of Black people is so narrow and linear, right? Most U.S. students come to understand Black history through the prism of Black chattel slavery. That’s what so many people walk away with, that despair and hopelessness. Chattel slavery is a huge, important thing that has great implications even to this day, but there’s so much more to Black people in this country and around the world than slavery. If your only understanding of Black history is slavery and oppression, you’re doing a disservice to the breadth and experience of Black people.
- What are some of the topics you’d focus on?
One thing I explore is aesthetics; I look at music. If you look at jazz, gospel, rock and roll, country, even techno, there are so many places Black people have altered or changed the course of music.
- Is there a specific age where it’s appropriate to teach Black history?
From the perspective of Black children, you read and hear so many negative things about you in this world. I think it’s important to have those conversations, those understandings when you’re young to dispel stereotypes and myths about you. (American writer) James Baldwin said, “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.” We’re at this point that depending on what state you’re in, what school district, there are entities that are against the teaching of Black history. Even learning about Rosa Parks and MLK is “divisive” and “woke” and this evil stuff. And I’m like, racism happens in this country and for people to write about their experiences as Black people, that’s part of American history. When we opt not to talk about that with kids young and old, we really do them a disservice. For Black kids, you’re denying the child the right to read about themselves, see themselves, understand their experiences.
- What was your experience as a child learning Black history?
Probably my first exposure to Black history was in first or second grade. You learn about MLK then you learn about colonial America, then you finally get to chattel slavery. From there you go to Reconstruction, you go to Jim Crow, then Civil Rights and that’s where it ends. Isn’t there more to Black people than this? Even at the college level – I love WSU to death, but how many classes on Black history are there? On inventions, music, what we offer?
- In a perfect world, would Black history be included in every class, every lesson?
Do people even know enough about the history to teach Black history? I have seen some very poor attempts by teachers. When we take children to plantations or we try to imagine what enslavement was like for Black people, I don’t think we need to do that. In Spokane two years ago there were two Black girls in a class and their teacher was trying to get them to simulate picking cotton. There’s no point to this. I think people can read about slavery and understand it was pretty horrific and that we don’t need to imitate it. I think about my own experience, I had to be in fourth or fifth grade and my teacher asked me, “Pretend you have enslaved people, what would you do?” I’m like, how crazy are you asking me to think about what I would do with slaves? This is insane.
- So what would teaching Black history well look like?
I think being honest about what has happened. Every year I watch people put up MLK quotes. But when you read MLK he wasn’t this race-neutral person who didn’t understand class issues and struggles – he did. He was anti-war, you can argue that he was anti-capitalist. When we prop up certain figures and take away the history, we do such a disservice. Why does every American know the “I have a dream” tagline, but they don’t know the rest of his speech or any of his other works? My role as an educator is to talk, to question, to challenge, to maybe unsettle, because at the end of the day I want people to have an understanding of the complexities of what happened in this country. It’s not the greatest, it’s not the worst, but it’s history. History is not made to make people feel comfortable and happy.
- Your research has centered on “Black boy joy.” Could you explain that?
I encourage teachers to ask, what are kids finding joy in? Black boys might find joy within literature, music, aesthetics like how we wear our hair, how we style ourselves, how we talk. If you don’t value the aesthetics of a person you’re not going to value their history or see their humanity. For teachers, are you asking, do you have joy in your classroom, do your students have joy for learning? Why do some schools lack that joy? It could be discipline, pedagogical approaches, gaps in the curriculum. It could be about engagement.
- How can students understand the full scope of Black history?
I think it’s important for them to read. I encourage students even at the college level to open a book. There’s so much to know that won’t be taught in a textbook. If you really want to know Black history, go to the books. Start reading.
Explore Amir Gilmore’s suggested reading list to learn more about Black history and the Black experience.