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Staff Photo By Erin O. Smith / Kelvin Boyd poses for a photo with Orchard Knob Elementary School student Naei'lah Powers during EPB's 14th Annual Black History Poetry Contest in 2018.

State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, is quoted by the Tennessee Lookout as saying he is "surprised and disappointed" the Joint Legislative Education Committee has no plans this week to discuss a bill he introduced to provide a study of Black history to public school students.

The committee may have no plans to discuss it because public schools already teach Black history throughout the state's social studies curriculum. Indeed, it is woven in the curriculum in grades four, five and eight, and in high school.

Hakeem's bill would require districts "to provide age-appropriate instruction to public school students on Black history in the fifth and eighth grades" as well as provide "Black history resources and materials."

According to the state Department of Education curriculum, a discussion of slavery first begins in fourth-grade social studies and is the major part of at least seven lessons. The civil rights era is discussed as part of the fifth-grade curriculum, and slavery and civil rights are taken up again in numerous lessons as part of Tennessee history in the same school year.

Students return to Black history as part of the eighth-grade curriculum, which includes a specific study on African American history, including such subjects as "the economic, social, religious and legal justifications for the establishment and continuation of slavery," "the economic and social impact of Jim Crow laws on African Americans," "the extent to which the civil rights movement transformed American politics and society," and "the responses of African Americans to the economic, social and political challenges in the contemporary U.S."

The subject is also incorporated into the state's high school social studies curriculum, and students can take a separate African American History course as an elective.

The history of Native Americans, who once largely occupied the land that is now the United States, and the history of Hispanic Americans, who are now the country's largest racial or ethic group behind white non-Hispanics, are not covered nearly as extensively as Black Americans in the curriculum.

Hakeem seems to believe the subject is not even touched by state teachers.

"Black history intersects every period of American history," he said in a recent statement, "and the history of Black people in America is tied to the history of everyone else. To NOT teach Black history is to deprive students of an important piece of the American story."

We would agree, if it were true.

Hakeem still appears to be confused about the difference between teaching Black history and critical race theory. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a bill prohibiting any publicly funded school from teaching the theory that one race or sex is inherently superior to another or theories that promote division among races, classes or genders.

Critical race theory is the examination of all aspects of American life through the lens of race with an emphasis on separating individuals into oppressors or victims.

When the legislature passed the bill, though its tenets were straightforward, some politicians, office holders and pundits pretended teaching critical race theory was the same as teaching Black history, and vice versa. If you couldn't teach critical race theory, you weren't teaching Black history.

At the time, Hakeem, for instance, claimed the bill sought to erase centuries of Black Americans' history.

That wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. However, we have consistently argued that we believe opened-ended discussions on race guided by even-handed teachers should be permitted as a part of students' growth in critical thinking.

In April, Hakeem's bill was moved to "summer study," which is a polite way to saying the bill is going nowhere.

According to the Tennessee Lookout, the Chattanooga legislator wrote House Education Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, in June asking when the bill would be studied. White, he said, didn't respond, and the Tennessee Lookout said White did not respond to a request for a comment on the bill.

The Joint Education Committee is to meet Wednesday and Thursday, but the Black history bill is not on the agenda.

We hope Hakeem now will take the time to talk to state Department of Education officials to learn more about how much is taught about Black history and when it is taught.

Black history is part of American history, and we don't know anyone who is trying to prevent it from being taught. To pretend it isn't or hasn't been taught in the state is to seem woefully out of touch on the issue.

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