Changing Education: Elon University Professors Reflect on Teaching Black History Today

A teacher, a woman and an immigrant.

These three intersecting identities allow English professor Prudence Layne to tell her life story and teach African-American studies at Elon University. Layne’s 22 years of teaching Elon taught him a lot, but if there’s one thing that stood out, it’s that education surrounding African American and Black history is neglected.

“There’s kind of a fairy tale construction to the story of black history,” Layne said. “It’s a story and a narrative that a lot of people don’t know about.”

Layne said he was often asked the question, “Why is it African and African American?” when students refer to different types of studies. Questions like these can sometimes lead to discrepancies in the American education system. Throughout her time at Elon, Layne said she saw firsthand how the education system had ignored the importance of African American literature and history.

Her background – originally from the Caribbean but growing up between the United States, Denmark’s Faroe Islands and Barbados, Layne said she had a diverse upbringing during her high school and college years. Her experiences living in different communities give her a better understanding of diversity – something she brings to Elon.

“I felt empowered to talk about race,” Layne said. “We’re careful not to talk about these conversations as difficult conversations, it’s like riding a bike – it’s only difficult when you’re not training.”

Layne often encounters students in college who have little or no background in African American studies or history, primarily because many of their K-12 education systems have relegated the study of such histories. A major example of this is when a school district in North Carolina banned critical race theory of its classrooms in 2021.

Unlike Layne, an associate professor of education at Elon’s School of Education, Lisa Buchanan didn’t experience diversity in her upbringing.

“Before graduate school, I had a largely incomplete knowledge of African American history,” Buchanan wrote in an email to Elon News Network. “What I knew was things about black history, rather than learning about the world around me through black history.”

Buchanan wrote that African American history is often taught rather than taught. She has seen elements of history censored in the general education system, which is why many students at Elon and other institutions lack prior knowledge of American history.

Layne and Buchanan both believe that the college and K-12 education systems fail to teach important details about American history that relate to African American history or culture. According to Layne, there are differences between each of the African American cultures and there are different areas of study for each culture. She said these subjects should be taught individually, but instead they were intertwined with each other.

One observation Layne quickly made when she started teaching was that it was important to learn from new perspectives – early in her career, Layne said she could feel she was “pushing against the tide when she was teaching some students. She felt like she didn’t have a universal set of open minds to teach. Layne asks her students to consider their own privileges and experiences as a source of empowerment to make a difference.

“Teaching and learning about African American history has broadened my worldview and developed my understanding of the experiences of other groups and individuals,” Buchanan wrote. “African American history is incredibly multifaceted; it includes Black Persistence and Agency, Black Joy and Black Legacy.

Critical race theory and African American studies have made headlines in recent years over the regulation of black history education in some states. Critical Race Theory is an interdisciplinary examination of race and law in the United States. It’s a way of understanding how American racism has shaped public policy. In North Carolina, the teaching of critical race theory has led to a debate about racial concepts that can be discussed in the classroom.

North Carolina’s Bill 324 – which sought to ban all teaching of critical race theory – passed in September 2021, but has since been vetoed. This is one of the recent reasons why some teachers have found it difficult to teach African American studies due to educational limitations.

Layne said that although Elon University is a private institution and has different teaching regulations than public universities, faculty may still face challenges teaching a diverse curriculum.

“There are a lot of teachers who feel like their hands are tied,” Layne said. “They don’t teach critical race theory, but they want to be able to talk about the experiences of all of their students, not just any one in particular. And so they feel censored… There are real effects on how and what they teach.

Changing the approach to diversity education could be the solution to censorship issues such as mainstreaming into the educational process to foster an inclusive environment, according to Layne. By aiming for inclusivity and representation, students can come to a clearer understanding of African American and Black history.

“We need to expose our students to diverse perspectives from an early age,” Layne said. “That’s how empathy, inclusion and acceptance happen.”

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