Content creators are filling the gap on Black, LGBTQ history

With the U.S. Capitol in the background, a person waves a rainbow flag as they participant in a rally in support of the LGBTQIA+ community at Freedom Plaza, Saturday, June 12, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

As states look to restrict the teaching of race, gender identity and sexuality, social media content creators have stepped in to fill the gap.

Platforms like TikTok and Instagram have become an alternative resource to share histories that many never learned about in school.

Jay Colby, a 29-year-old Houston resident, runs one of those accounts.

In 2020, Colby started Black History Unlocked, an Instagram account that delves into the contributions, inventions and struggles of Black people around the world. 

“We try to cover Black history from all different viewpoints and not just one time period or one country,” Colby told The Hill. 

“A lot of these stories are not being told and you wouldn’t necessarily know this information if you didn’t do the deep research yourself,” Colby added. “So when [people] see them, it can be shocking. That’s what I think the appeal is.”

National curriculum on Black history is lacking

In 2020, CBS News found that there is no national curriculum for Black history. Only a few states, including Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and New York, require Black history be taught in public schools. Meanwhile, eight states do not mention the civil rights movement in their curricula, and 16 states list states’ rights as a cause of the Civil War instead of slavery.

Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) in 2020 introduced the Black History is American History Act. The legislation requires Black history be taught as a component of American history in order for schools to be considered for American History and Civics Academies’ grants. 

The bill hasn’t passed Congress yet. And since then, classrooms have become a new battleground for politicians. Most recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) refused to allow an Advanced Placement African American studies course to run in state schools because it was “lacking educational value.”

In Florida, educators face restrictions on how topics such as racism can be taught in schools. The law prohibits any instruction that could make someone feel “personal responsibility” for historic wrongdoings because of their race, sex or national origin.

But this type of legislation is impacting educators’ abilities to bring their full selves into the classroom, said Jerry Wilson, policy and advocacy director of the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED) in North Carolina.

“We know that teachers of color have a profound impact on the educational experiences of students of color,” said Wilson. “When educators of color are free to bring their whole selves into the classroom, students could benefit.”

Wilson said attacks on teaching race and LGBTQ history are about “diminishing representation” and marginalized students. 

That’s why CREED has been partnering with other organizations to provide resources for teachers of color. It’s also been using Twitter to host monthly “spaces” where educators can discuss how to navigate the new politicization of their identities.

Colby, meanwhile, uses Black History Unlocked to share posts on prominent figures and events, like the biography of Mansa Musa. The emperor of the Mali Empire in the 14th century, his pilgrimage to Mecca gained the attention of European countries, leading Italian, German and Spanish cartographers to create maps that showed Mali and Musa’s likeness. 

“Some of the comments we’ve received have been like, ‘It’s life changing,’” said Colby. “Somebody said this has changed their life because it opened their eyes and they learned so much.” 

While Colby’s account is wide-ranging in terms of tales, Kelly Garnes, a former history teacher in New Jersey, runs the Black History for Kids Instagram page where a majority of the stories are uplifting and positive. 

“My site focuses on working with young children, so what you will not necessarily find is all of the tragedy that has occurred over the years,” Garnes said. “There’s plenty of time to get to that.”

“Being able to infuse people who have done wonderful things and have made accomplishments and events that give them pride will allow them to understand their environment a lot more and understand that the story on the surface or the story in this one book isn’t the only story.”

Like Colby, Garnes has received positive feedback for her work, including parents asking for more resources to share with their children.

A need for teaching LQBTQ history

But as accounts like Black History Unlocked and Black History for Kids grow in popularity, so has the desire for stories on LGBTQ history. 

Like Black history, there is no national curriculum for LGBTQ history, and most schools across the country don’t teach the topic. 

So in 2019, Jake Newsome decided to begin a TikTok series focused on “uncovering the stories of the queer past.”

Newsome’s TikTok videos highlight queer victims of the Holocaust, like Ilse Totzke, Ernst Pack, Eve Adams and more. 

“There were a lot of great content creators and accounts that were doing American LGBTQ history, but I couldn’t find a lot that told stories of LGBTQ Holocaust victims,” said Newsome, who has a Ph.D. in history. “So I thought, well, you know what, I can do that. Let’s start introducing TikTokers to some of these really incredible stories from the past.”

Newsome began posting videos in June 2021, during Pride Month. The goal was 30 stories in 30 days. But he didn’t stop there. Newsome also turned the camera inward, sharing a more personal video of his experiences as a gay man and the importance of gay visibility during this time.

Newsome has since published a book, “Pink Triangles Legacies,” which traces how the pink triangle of concentration camps — used to identify LGBT victims — was reclaimed to be a symbol of queer pride.

Finding representation in school, Newsome said, can be “lifesaving.”

“These laws that try to define different gender identities or different sexual orientations as inappropriate or not closes an avenue for some students who might have [a] very hard home life and they don’t feel safe coming out at home,” said Newsome. “School could have been a place where they can safely go to their teacher or go to their guidance counselor, ask for help, ask for information to help them understand what they’re going through. And now this legislation is completely shutting down that outlet.”

For Kelly, as curricula come under fire, social media accounts like hers give parents a tool with which to build up their children. 

“I want parents prepared with all of the wonderful things that children can experience,” she said. “They can be excited and proud and seeing people who look like them accomplishing really wonderful things, so they can be reminded always of their greatness, even in the tragic parts of our history that we still have to talk about.”

Tags Black history History LGBTQ rights

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