‘Teaching the correct topics’

Published 6:32 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Paityn Barefoot wins Black History Month essay contest

If Paityn Barefoot had her way, every month — not just February — would be Black History Month.

“Confining a whole population’s history to a single period limits the amount of information that can be taught to the public” and can result in “a one-sided argument,” Barefoot writes.

The Smithfield High School senior is this year’s winner of The Smithfield Times’ Black History Month essay contest, open to high school students in Isle of Wight and Surry counties. Public, private and homeschooled students were asked to write essays of up to 350 words answering the question, “What lessons from Black history should be taught more fully in today’s classrooms?”

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“Throughout history, individuals have been taught a curriculum surrounding the white man’s perspective, which influenced students’ point of view on racial topics and furthered their ignorance,” Barefoot writes. “Society now has an opportunity to prevent biased teachings from influencing the public, so why not further social change? This begins with teaching the correct topics.”

Curriculum that teaches Black history beyond the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s or the jazz era is particularly lacking, in Barefoot’s view.

“American history always credits white politicians for making America successful,” she writes. “Some people can say that this is simply an issue of power, not race. However, there’s a reason why a black politician was considered very rare.”

Barefoot’s perspective comes in the wake of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s January executive order banning the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” in public schools regarding race relations, and on the heels of parental backlash against Smithfield High’s “Read Woke” challenge at Isle of Wight County School Board meetings last fall.

The ungraded challenge encourages students to read social justice-themed books available at the school’s library. Some parents have objected to the profanity and sexual content in some of the books, while others have characterized the books’ focus on race relations as “divisive.”

Barefoot admits she hasn’t been following the local or statewide controversy in the news. Nor had she considered how Black history is — and isn’t — taught in schools, prior to writing her essay.

“I’ve always heard about [Black History Month] … but I haven’t really made it my own,” Barefoot said.

It was her English teacher, Julie Eng, who prompted Barefoot and her classmates to ask themselves what was lacking from the curriculum, and submit their views as entries in the Times’ contest. The assignment was voluntary and ungraded.

“I really appreciate this contest … I think it really made people think about Black history,” Barefoot said.

As this year’s winner, Barefoot will receive a $125 cash prize.

Barefoot is a member of Smithfield High’s National Honor Society and is active in her church, Smithfield Assembly of God. She’s deciding between Longwood University and Christopher Newport University for college, and hopes to become an accountant.

She is the daughter of Noelle and James Barefoot of Smithfield.

Winning Essay

Black History month is an expression of African American culture and an appreciation of their legacy. However, confining a whole population’s history to a single period limits the amount of information that can be taught to the public. Furthermore, history classes teach black history as a segment of the curriculum, rather than intertwining lessons throughout the semester. As a result, some of the young population have a certain opinion based on limited information and have had exposure to a one-sided argument. This can be seen in many older generations. Throughout history, individuals have been taught a curriculum surrounding the white man’s perspective, which influenced students’ point of view on racial topics and furthered their ignorance. Society now has an opportunity to prevent biased teachings from influencing the public, so why not further social change? This begins with teaching the correct topics. One concept that has been neglected in past years is the acknowledgment of how the black population improved America.

American history always credits white politicians for making America successful. Some people can say that this is simply an issue of power, not race. However, there’s a reason why a black politician was considered very rare. People did not want the black man in authority, so why would they credit black people with improving America? The curriculum that teaches black history should not be confined to civil rights movements or the jazz era, but expand on inventions, infrastructure, and other ideas that have been developed by black thinkers. As a society, the leaders and the public should normalize African American involvement in society and celebrate all aspects of their accomplishments. Ultimately, teaching these lessons in a classroom will help raise up students who think and act in a way that defeats ignorance and gives credit to the correct people, which significantly improves society.


Second Place Essay

Black history should be taught year-round

The following essay by Smithfield High School senior Grace S. Ericksen won second place in The Smithfield Times Black History Month Essay Contest. She is the daughter of Kirsten S. Ericksen and Sean Ericksen.

In school we learn about Black History mostly during February. Learning about these historically significant black figures is extremely important but only really discussed in February.

Every day in February the morning announcements come on and after the pledge and a moment of silence, a fact about a historical black person is announced. Nobody really listens. People sit down and go about their work and ignore the person over the loudspeaker. This is partly to blame on the students for not listening, but also we have been taught to ignore the announcements because many people find them to be a nuisance and rarely directly impact us.

Is giving a random fact every day for one month that nobody really listens to the best way to honor the group of people who are singled out and discriminated against the most? One month is not enough to learn about the rich history of Black people in America.

We should be learning about how the effects of Jim Crow laws have created systemic racism that is still in effect today. We should be learning about what we as students and individuals can do to help reverse systemic racism. We should be learning how to respect and how to approach conversations about racism. We should be taught about things that are said in conversations that offend the Black community, because I am positive people have no idea that what they are saying is offensive.

We should dedicate more time during the entire year, not just one month, to being taught about historical black events like the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama. I, a white female 18-year-old senior, did not learn about the Children’s March until this year, my last year of high school. How is that acceptable?

I can only assume that since most events of the civil rights movement are glazed over and just summed up, there are so many events that are not taught in school. As human beings we need to be held accountable and do the research and do the things necessary to pay respect that has never been given to the Black community.


Honorable Mentions

Acknowledge problems that haven’t been solved

This essay by Luna Williams, a Smithfield High School senior, received honorable mention in The Smithfield Times Black History Month Essay Contest. She is the daughter of Shannon and Anthony Williams.

In my own personal opinion, I believe that it is important for all children to learn the history of black people. We should be taught the true history, and not any whitewashed versions that are provided in school systems.

Learning history from people with perspective, like people of Black descent, helps give a stronger, more personal connection with it. The pride and inspiration from people of that descent are what makes learning about history so much more inclusive and exhilarating.

One very broad lesson that is taught in schools is that “Blacks have equal rights.” This lesson leads us to Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks. Even though all of these major historical figures have fought for this lesson specifically, many of our present issues are ones that we have left unsolved or failed to fix in the past.

I do believe that it is important to broadcast and inform people of the little changes that have been made, but we fail to let people know of the problems we have yet to solve. African Americans are still, very much, fighting for their equal rights and protection. Even though our nation has expressed the idea of “Everyone is created equal,” the shadows from slavery, Jim Crow laws and the blight of systemic racism still continue to hold America back from reaching the full potential that it can be.

“Black History is American History” is something often told to my family by my father. If we are not fully taught about Black History, how are children, and adults as well, expected to know the true and full American history? Without these crucial bits of information, American history is nothing more than just mythology put before us to entertain the thoughts and ideas in our heads. Across generations, a plethora of Black Americans demonstrated earnest moral courage and fought to shape our nation. Nowadays, Black Americans work and lead movements and businesses for change and scraps that do not compare to the white people’s privilege that is given. In reality, this is the lesson that should be taught.


Why African American inventors should be taught in schools

This essay by Smithfield High School senior Reggie Johnson earned honorable mention in The Smithfield Times Black History Month Essay Contest. He is the son of Reginald Johnson.  

As students in school, we end up learning about types of inventions made by different people such as Thomas Edison with the lightbulb or Benjamin Franklin with his invention of the lightning rod. However, we never get to find out many inventions from African Americans like how Richard Spikes patented the automatic gear shift used in many cars today or how Alexander Miles invented the automatic doors used for elevators. African American engineers do not receive enough recognition for what they have done for us today and they should be taught alongside the other famous inventors in schools.

One reason teaching everyone about the invention of African Americans would be beneficial is so that people can understand that you do not have to be supported by everyone to do something great. There is not even credit for the first invention from an African American.

The first invention to get a patent by the U.S. Patent Office was an attachment made by Lewis Latimer for Thomas Edison’s lamp. Many other inventors have gone unrecognized or had their stories of the things they made lost to history. George Peake made a hand mill for grinding corn, Benjamin Bannaker completed the first farmer’s almanac in 1792, and James Forten improved

the sail and sail hoist for larger boats. None of these inventors received a patent or were recognized for their efforts until much later after their invention.

These bits of information are lessons that should be learned in school and covered alongside the other great inventions of their time and become normal across America for more people to be educated on stuff they use in their everyday lives. Not everyone knows the potato chip was invented by an African American chef, George Speck, and that is a snack many of us eat without knowing its origins. We should be able to know more about the world around us and where all of our technological advancements really came from.


Secret communication was critical for slaves

This essay by Sayone Greene, a Smithfield High School senior, earned honorable mention in The Smithfield Times Black History Month Essay Contest. She is the daughter of Tasia Day.

In classrooms, today students are taught about slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and the more prevalent history of an African American background. Today’s curriculum does not extend into African descent and formally informs students about African culture during slavery. People of African American backgrounds weren’t informed of the secret language used or the technique used in African American slaves’ style of braiding to create maps.

The African American language Tutnese was a popular language for enslaved African Americans. During slavery, they used Tutnese to communicate in front of their masters as a code to hide conversations from their masters. At that time, African Americans weren’t allowed to be educated, so they did it in code using Tutnese; utilizing teaching spelling and reading to fit into their secret communication. Learning for slaves was not allowed, so if they were to get caught learning academic skills they would be punished, sometimes by death.

Braiding has evolved into a trend, a popular hairstyle used by many African American men and women. A lot of people love braiding styles but don’t understand the history of braiding. These current trends originated from a form of communication to direct slaves to food sources as well as maps.

It may not be reported or lectured in classrooms and textbooks, but it came into existence. It is a known fact that slaves used their hair to store rice and grains in cornrows and used parts in their braids for maps or escape routes.

In conclusion, the question asked,” What lessons from Black History should be taught more fully in today’s classrooms?” and I chose the secret communications used by slaves. Why? well, we talk about the languages of Buddhism, Judaism and other communication of religions, why not shine the light on African culturalists?

When teaching about slavery, if more African American children knew about their backgrounds and where these hairstyles evolved from, then a simple hairstyle could perhaps represent something more than a two-week hairstyle.


A radical change

This essay by Smithfield High School senior Nikolas Voros earned honorable mention in The Smithfield Times Black History Month Essay Contest. He is the son of Jenny and Brent Voros.

Everyone has a general idea of how African Americans got their civil rights here in the United States. However, not a lot of people talk about the reconstruction of African American society in America.

Not many schools emphasize the time known as the Radical Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 to 1877. Although African males were granted citizenship, and the right to vote; discrimination was still very much alive. These people may have been granted rights, but they still had to endure the harsh conditions of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and many other white people.

They did this all while having little to no education or money to live an independent life. However, African Americans quickly gripped this opportunity of freedom they were given. They started buying and working on their land, some trying to make a political face for the African American society, while others started getting an education.

African Americans knew that the most important element to the success of their reconstruction was none other than education. Still facing the many obstacles imposed on their lives, they managed to start rolling with education using the Freedmen’s Bureau to get more teachers and schools built in these communities so that young and older African Americans had the opportunity to learn.

African Americans also turned to churches as a way of reconstruction; people would gather and work to improve their community. This was a place where people could preach their feelings without going unnoticed. Turning to use churches would turn out to be a great way to advocate to the world about African American equality. A prime example of this is none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, who began the spark of African Americans using their voice to better themselves in nonviolent ways.

Overall, during this era of reconstruction, African Americans faced many hardships and adversities, but through all of this, they still managed to gain political importance, education, freedom and, most importantly, a voice.