In what some say is a growing educational trend, lawmakers in three states have set up commissions to investigate how the issue of race-based slavery is dealt with in America's history classrooms.
The reality that for nearly 250 years, people of African ancestry were kept in bondage in this country is hardly a secret. But many lawmakers believe children are not fully grasping the legacy of that enslavement. They have set up study groups to remedy the situation, but some educators believe that approach is the wrong way to get the message across.
The study groups are being called "Amistad Commissions." The Amistad was a ship commandeered by slaves in 1839. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually granted those slaves their freedom, and thanks to Steven Spielberg, who made a film about the incident in 1997, many Americans today are familiar with the story of the Amistad.
But according to Karen Jackson Weaver, executive director of New Jersey's Amistad Commission, the role that blacks played in the entire American experience is often unknown or misunderstood. Ms. Weaver says teachers focus on figures like civil rights leader Martin Luther King every February, because it is African-American History month. But they do not always know how to integrate King's experience - or that of thousands of other African-Americans - into the grand narrative that is America's story.
"African-Americans see themselves as - and indeed are - Americans," Ms. Weaver points out. "They fought in wars, they participated in every type of American activity, but it's unfortunate that we save one month of the year to celebrate and to commemorate the sufferings, as well as the contributions that they've made. What we're doing is really trying to integrate the roles of African-Americans throughout the year."
To that end, the historians and educational professionals who serve on New Jersey's Amistad Commission have organized seminars to teach teachers how to integrate African-American history into their curricula. The commission is also working to identify textbooks that it believes adequately address the African-American experience.
New Jersey's was the first Amistad Commission to be authorized by state lawmakers. It was created in 2003. In 2004, Illinois put together its own Amistad Commission, and earlier this year, lawmakers in New York passed a resolution calling for the creation of one there.
New York's legislation, however, has generated some controversy, because it allows people who are not trained historians or educators to serve on the commission. "I think that we need a fresh perspective, if you will," says New York State Assemblyman Keith Wright, who wrote the resolution that created the Commission. "Certainly educators are not prohibited from being on the panel. But for the most part I think we need to take a look at this situation with a fresh set of eyes, because it has not been grappled with in 200 years."
But it has been grappled with - and is being grappled with - by people who have the experience and education to do so, according to Candace de Russy, who serves on the Board of Trustees for the State University of New York. Ms. de Russy says African-American history has been taught to America's children for more than a generation now. She is concerned by the growing number of Amistad Commissions and worries that New York's in particular will become an opportunity for politically-motivated hacks to balkanize the country's past and, in so doing, deny American children an understanding of their common heritage.
"It is very problematic to hand over the determination of curricula to unqualified citizen
panels. It practically guarantees that American history will, in fact, be distorted," Ms. de Russy says. "I would add that this trend in education is already pervasive, and indeed there's a growing concern about whether or not Americans are being taught about what unifies us, our traditions - you know, the Constitution, etc."
The concern about having untrained individuals on the commission could be a legitimate one, according to New Jersey's Karen Jackson Weaver. The Amistad Commission she oversees is made up exclusively of educators and historians. But Ms. Weaver says the allegation that Amistad Commissions may balkanize America's history is groundless.
"Really what this commission seeks to do is to fully integrate the roles and contributions of African-Americans into American society," she says. "I think critics probably don't understand the nature of what we're doing, so they probably see it as identity politics because [the commission] is coming from the political realm. But we're fortunate that we don't have that as a problem."
So far, New Jersey, Illinois, and New York are the only states to formally create Amistad Commissions, but lawmakers in other parts of the country have begun to instruct teachers to focus on the history of particular ethnic groups. In New Mexico, for example, children under the age of 12 are required to study Native American history and culture every year, while lawmakers in Rhode Island have directed schools to teach about the Irish Potato Famine of the 1850s and the Armenian genocide at the turn of the 20th century.