Rep. Hakeem questions why Tennessee House Republicans won't consider his Black history bill in study panel

Staff file photo / District 28 Democrat candidate Yusuf Hakeem speaks during a meet and greet hosted by the League of Women Voters at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's University Center on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, is questioning why House Republicans aren't honoring what he views as their commitment to return to a Black history bill he sponsored that GOP lawmakers in April set aside for summer study.

Hakeem said he's surprised and disappointed the House's Joint Legislative Education Committee's meeting on Wednesday and Thursday doesn't have his House Bill 1460 on the agenda.

The bill, which deals with students in grades 5-8, is intended to provide age-appropriate instruction on Black history to Tennessee public school students, Hakeem said.

The lawmaker said he believes he was given assurances at the House Education Instruction Committee on April 14 when Republicans moved it to summer study to be taken up.

This week's House agenda shows representatives will be discussing chronic absenteeism and truancy on Wednesday at the joint committee. On Thursday, their attention turns to reviewing summer learning camps and state testing.

Hakeem said he attempted to speak with House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, with no success.

"To my knowledge, I followed all the protocols and processes that are in place with the legislature, going through committee, the committee says we'll do summer study," Hakeem said. "And I've been attempting to communicate with Chairman White since the first part of June. I've not had any response.

"So we're now trying to see what we can do to be a part of the summer study or why we can't be," Hakeem added.

Times Free Press efforts to reach White by phone Tuesday were unsuccessful. But the chairman told the Tennessee Lookout that Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton's office had approved the agenda, and the speaker's office didn't want specific bills brought up.

The office said the joint committee focus should be on pandemic-related student learning loss, White said.

In a statement to the Times Free Press, Sexton said, "Rep. Hakeem and all members know not all bills that are referred to summer study will be able to have a hearing. I encourage him and all of our members to continue working with committee members on their legislative ideas while we are out of session."

Hakeem said earlier he brought the legislation because "in my view what is being given to the children in the state of Tennessee is a narrative of our history that is incomplete.

"I know some people have fear and concerns about complete history being taught. But we have to know where we're coming from to plot a plan, a future for all of us," he said.

He said the material "should be an integral part of the history studied by students. And you know, this is not, I don't believe, considered radical when you talk about the Tuskegee Airmen and George Washington Carver and people like that."

Hakeem said he feels "some people want to perpetuate the narrative that has been out there all the years that the only contribution of African Americans to the Tennessee and American culture has been participation in slavery.

"I think that is a false narrative that needs to be addressed. And I think once again it says that in the unwillingness of a concern, a fear that telling the truth will be harmful to children as a whole."

Sending bills for summer study is an age-old practice among lawmakers when they're uncomfortable with a bill, think it needs more work or simply wish to kill it for the year.

But Hakeem said he feels he was given assurance his bill would be discussed and he hopes to press the issue. He said he was told the bill would be placed in "the perfect position" when the full legislature reconvenes in January.

The motion to move the bill to summer study came from Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, who raised a number of concerns about the legislation, including what he said was a "carve-out" for Black history in early grades.

"I would assume that everybody here would not want individual carve-outs for everybody's history to be taught separate during the day, which could present problems," Cepicky said.

Creation of the "carve-outs could inadvertently be detrimental to our reading, writing and math where in the aspect of it, being able to incorporate these in the English language arts to let our children read about them has a good aspect."

Cepicky also told Hakeem, "I see where you're going with this, and I think it's admirable," adding he believes "we need to really look at this as an education committee when our social studies standards come up and we start talking about history.

"Let's make sure we're getting a) an accurate history taught; b) let's make sure we're getting appropriate history taught of children looking up to the right people in this work," Cepicky said at the time.

Noting the bill wouldn't take effect until the 2025-26 school year, Cepicky moved the bill to study, "so we can take a look at this over the summer and then make sure we get this bill in the perfect position - hope you're hearing me - we hope we get this bill in the perfect position as we come back next year, that we can start to prepare for the social studies review that's coming up shortly."

It passed on a voice vote with some Democrats objecting.

Bill opponents included Senate Education Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. Later, Kelsey and GOP colleagues in both the Senate and House pushed through a bill at the end of the legislative session banning the teaching of certain concepts about race in public K-12 education. Among others, the banned ideas include:

- "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."

- "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex."

- "An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex."

- "A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex."

- "This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist."

According to Cepicky, "We focused on 14 tenets that are divisive in nature, pit one race or sex against another and produce blame. That's not what our country is about."

Hakeem opposed the bill.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.