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Contributed Illustration / State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, wants to require that Black history and culture — already part of state social studies standards — be required to be taught as part of the curricula for grades 5-8 in Tennessee public schools.

The optimum words must be "requires, rather than recommends."

That's the wording on a bill sponsored by state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, that the course of instruction for Tennessee public school students in grades 5-8 will be required to include curricula designed to educate students on Black history and Black culture.

Since Tennessee social studies standards, updated as recently as the 2019-2020 school year, already contain significant Black history content taught as part of broader social studies courses, we assumed that already was being done.

If it is not, it should be.

After all, the state social studies standards contain these words: "The Tennessee Social Studies Standards lay out a vision of these vitally important disciplines and describe what all students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade/course level."

If what are called standards aren't required but recommended, we're not sure how the process works.

We hope Hakeem will single out which schools and which teachers are not teaching what are said to be state standards, if that's what is happening. We're sure he must have done extensive research to determine that this content is not being taught, and so to do so it must be required in grades 5-8.

"What this bill is about to is to afford a broader understanding of our American history," he told colleagues in a recent subcommittee hearing. "I guess in doing so, we have to ask a question, why do we need this bill? What we're intending to do is demonstrate the need for Black history and where it intersects with every period in American history."

According to state standards, fifth grade students are scheduled to learn about post-Civil War United States history and Tennessee history. Among the Black U.S. history and Black U.S. history figures they are supposed to be learning about are the Buffalo soldiers, George Washington Carver, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights movement and its key figures. In Tennessee history, they are to study the issue of slavery in the state's three grand divisions, Jim Crow laws, poll taxes and Reconstruction, plus the civil rights movement, blues music figures and influential Tennesseans such as Wilma Rudolph and Oprah Winfrey.

In the sixth grade, they are to discuss slaves in the broader context of world history.

In the seventh grade, in the broader scope of world geography, they are to discuss West African history, culture, spiritual traditions and trade, and the circumstances leading up to African slave trade.

In the eighth grade, in U.S. geography and the era of U.S. history through Reconstruction, they are again to study slavery in the colonies, its role in forming the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the slave trade and slavery in the South, abolitionist figures such as Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, agreements that divided U.S. states between free and slave-keeping, Supreme Court decisions on slavery, roles of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, Black Civil War soldiers, and the role of Reconstruction on newly free Blacks.

The standards also cite a 2010 state law, which says, in part: "The course of instruction in all public schools should include, at some appropriate grade level or levels, as determined by the local board of education, courses and content designed to educate children in black history and culture and the contribution of black people to the history and development of this country and of the world."

Thus, according to the state social studies standards, Tennessee public school courses should already be doing exactly what Hakeem said — teaching "Black history and where it intersects with every period in American history."

Indeed, one of the figures he told panel members students should know about is George Washington Carver, a Black agricultural scientist and inventor. As noted above, Carver is one of the figures that standards say fifth-graders already should be familiar with.

Hakeem's bill cleared the House Finance Subcommittee earlier this week and already had cleared the House Education Instruction Committee. It now must clear the full House Finance Committee before going to the Calendar and Rules Committee to be scheduled for a floor vote.

If state social studies teachers are not teaching the Black history concepts aligned in the state standards, the public should be told why. If they are being taught, we hope Hakeem will enlighten the legislature and the public why standards that are already being taught now must said to be required.

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