Leonard Moore: On Teaching Black History to White PeopleHistorians in the News
tags: racism, books, African American history, teaching history, critical race theory
Leonard N. Moore teaches the undergraduate course “History of the Black Power Movement” on a campus where only 5 percent of undergraduates are Black. He’s picked up a few lessons about teaching Black history to white students along the way. Our Katie Mangan spoke with him about what he’s learned and about how people can be good allies.
Understanding the Black Experience
Many of the white students who flock to Leonard N. Moore’s course on the history of the Black Power movement start the semester at the University of Texas at Austin saying they don’t see race. He makes sure that by the end of the semester, they do.
Moore, a professor of history and former vice president for diversity and community engagement at the flagship campus, shares his approach in a new book: Teaching Black History to White People (University of Texas Press, 2021).
In it, he weaves personal anecdotes — about being mistaken for an assistant basketball coach and having his campus parking privileges challenged — with lessons about Jim Crow laws and voter suppression. Racial reconciliation will only come about, he argues, with an understanding of Black history and an appreciation of the Black experience.
“History of the Black Power Movement” is one of two undergraduate courses Moore teaches that last fall enrolled around 1,000 students, more than half of them white. The other, which he’ll teach again next fall, is “Race in the Age of Trump.”
I spoke with Moore about his approach to teaching those courses on a campus where only 5 percent of undergraduates are Black and where some white students have told him their parents were worried he’d turn them into liberals or make them feel guilty about their race. (Neither, he said, has happened.) The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been teaching Black history to white people for more than two decades. Why write this book now?
Particularly in the aftermath of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders, there was a lot of talk about race in America, and we don’t have a good historical context for that. Many well-meaning white people believe that there are no longer any racial barriers, and I understand that. From where they sit, they may not see them. I remember an older white gentleman saying, “Leonard, man, I don’t see all the racism that Black people are talking about.” I wrote the book to show how impactful a course on Black history can be.
Most of the kids, when they say they don’t see race, on one hand that could be applauded. What they’re saying is, “I don’t stereotype people based on race.” I tell them that in America it’s all about connected individuality. I need to see race. I need to see difference.
Every year in my Trump class, I have about 10 Muslim women who wear a hijab. I need to see them because their experience is probably unlike any other at the university. In another class, I have 30 to 40 undocumented students. I tell people that if you’re an undocumented student, whenever somebody walks into the classroom in the middle of the lecture, you’re thinking, is it ICE? Whenever you get a text message, you’re wondering, has my uncle or grandmother been deported? That’s why we have to see individuals. I don’t treat all students the same, but I do treat all students fairly.
What effect has the controversy over the teaching of critical race theory, which has been particularly explosive in Texas, had on your classes?
I haven’t had any pushback toward Black history in 25 years, but some of the pushback toward CRT is starting to bleed over into Black history now. People don’t want to be told what they need to believe. My approach with a lot of my white students has been, “I don’t care who you vote for. I don’t care about your political ideology. But if you want to be competitive in a global job market, you have to be culturally intelligent, and in America, that starts with understanding the Black experience. I know some of you want to go work on Wall Street. What if your boss is a Black woman who has a Black Lives Matter sticker on her desk? Are you gonna quit?” It’s about getting them to understand the value in other people’s perspectives.
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