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A request to have our back in teaching Black history in Montana

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A request to have our back in teaching Black history in Montana

Feb 27, 2024 | 2:03 pm ET
By Tobin Miller Shearer
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A request to have our back in teaching Black history in Montana
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Black History Month logo (Getty Images illustration).

The room was full of questions on Friday. From first-year students to first-time grandmothers, those participating in the intergenerational experiment that is my African-American History course this semester wanted to know more.

They usually do.

Given that their queries arose in the midst of Black History Month, it seemed especially meaningful. All the more so given that my students did not for a second back away from our exploration that day of both the valor of Black Soldiers in World War I and the determination and courage of their wives and sisters and mothers and daughters who pushed back hard against the racial violence intensifying at home.

Just as they have all semester, this mixed group of University of Montana undergraduates and non-credit participants in MOLLI, UM’s life-long learning program, have brought the best of their focus, curiosity and attention to the classroom. Together we have examined the history of Reconstruction, segregation, and lynching as well as the bold and beautiful record of Black communities and their allies refusing to give in.

But what is perhaps most significant is that any one is in the room at all. Since arriving here at UM 16 years ago to step into leadership of the African-American Studies program – the country’s third oldest – I and my colleagues have witnessed repeated cuts to the humanities as a whole and attacks from the public on our program’s teaching and scholarship. This foment prompted the white supremacist Turning Point’s Professor Watchlist to label me as one of the country’s most “dangerous” professors that in turn resulted in multiple death threats requiring that we hold some of our classes in undisclosed locations on campus. We have also witnessed chilling attempts to curtail our academic freedom by placing a ban on the teaching of “critical race theory.”

Yet despite that record of attempts to make Black History go away, efforts that have resulted in high school restrictions on teaching about enslavement as well as the dismissal of staff and faculty involved in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts more broadly, we gathered in the classroom last Friday.

We will do so again throughout this week, the one that follows, and for the rest of the semester. We will do so because the conversations that we have in the classroom and those that ripple out from Eck Hall on campus make a difference in this moment of our nation’s history when we see not only the attempts to erase Black History but also efforts to undercut our democracy as a whole.

So, at the tail end of this year’s Black History month, I ask one thing and remind you of another.

My request is that you pay attention to our students and those that teach them at the University of Montana. Please have our back in the face of the external threats that make the teaching of Black history and other Humanities topics so challenging and requires such courage from all involved.

My reminder is to leave you with the image of this intergenerational class where on Friday last week gray haired grandmothers and first-year teenagers sat right next to each other and made safe and vibrant education about Black History simply by being in the room and asking good questions of us all.