Black History Month has a particular resonance in 2015, six months after Michael Brown’s death. Since August, the country has seen a resurgence of civil rights activism nationwide by advocates seeking justice for slain Black men, women, and children, including killings in the trans community. Unsurprisingly, social media, particularly Twitter, has been a crucial tool for holding discussions about these issues and examining how we acknowledge Black history, including the people who helped shape the way we protest injustices.
Earlier this month Justin Giuliano (@JayJewels93) created the #BlackHistoryYouDidntLearnInSchool hashtag on Twitter to dig into the history he felt had been erased from U.S. history books. A Bethel University senior who is majoring in sociocultural studies, Guiliano told Rewire that his hashtag is, indeed, “an extension of the #BlackLivesMatter movement,” in which he has actively participated. Last October, he experienced police brutality firsthand in Ferguson, Missouri. “I’m teaching (and learning) more Black history, which then gives me a knowledge of protests, activists, and methods by which Black historical figures sought justice and empowerment,” he added.
Rewire interviewed Giuliano via email earlier this week about the success of his hashtag and the importance of showing that Black history is more far-reaching and embedded in our present-day social structures than state education departments and local school districts, which determine which subjects will be taught in schools, would have us believe.
Rewire: How did the #BlackHistoryYouDidntLearnInSchool hashtag come about?
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Justin Giuliano: The hashtag was created on a whim because I wanted to talk and learn about Black historical figures and events that deviate from the norm.
Rewire: Traditionally, what was Black History Month like for you in school?
JG: In school, I only ever really learned about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and we briefly covered slavery. In other words, I learned about the same people every year, and I thought my history was encapsulated by only a few people. Schools don’t emphasize how expansive and beautiful Black history is.
Rewire: What does your hashtag bring to the conversation about Black history that the #BlackHistoryMonth hashtag might be neglecting?
JG: It brings up Black inventors, musicians, activists, and events that have been overlooked or whitewashed. The first day I highlighted Bayard Rustin’s life and his contributions to Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington. I had never heard of his name before in school, but he is a catalyzing figure in the Civil Rights movement. And yet, he has been erased from it. I think with the history that we do learn in school such as MLK Jr., educators tend to whitewash, pacify, and downplay the role Black people played in advancing human rights in this country.
Rewire: But isn’t that the point of Black History Month, to highlight those contributions? What do you think education departments and other proponents of the focus month are missing when they teach Black history?
JG: They tend to gloss over how harsh the realities were. I thought the Montgomery Bus Boycott happened in the span of a week, not 13 months! Black history is taught to us in a way that makes it seem like America was totally compliant with the Black liberation movement and that white people weren’t really that harsh.
I think it’s difficult to say anything about teachers. I have talked to a few high school history teachers and have learned how bound they are by the curriculum that the school gives them. Oftentimes, their freedom is limited and they aren’t allowed to teach too much Black history during Black History Month. I think it has more to do with the lawmakers and the legislation passed that decides what we teach in school. Teachers are simply the vessels by which students are taught these lessons. They are crucial, but they have negligible sway from what I’ve been told. I tend not to blame teachers.
Rewire: What are some of the things you’ve learned about Black history since you started the hashtag?
JG: I’ve learned about different aspects of Black history that I didn’t know before concerning activists, musicians, soldiers, actresses, and so on. People have been sending me ideas all month and I’ve been trying to take it all in as best as I can.
Rewire: Are you recording the tweets beyond Twitter on social media? How are you archiving what you’re learning?
JC: I am posting all of my tweets to Tumblr every day. I see this as a way to archive my tweets but also to extend the reach that I have with this hashtag.
Rewire: How have people, both people of color and white people, responded to the hashtag?
JG: Everyone has been great about the hashtag. People have thanked me for it, told me they would join in, or told me that they would tell others about it. I am thankful for the positive response that I’ve received.
Rewire: Do you see the hashtag as part of, or as an extension of, the #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe movements?
JG: I see the hashtag as an extension of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I’m teaching (and learning) more Black history, which then gives me a knowledge of protests, activists, and methods by which Black historical figures sought justice and empowerment. It’s helpful to be able to reference more than just MLK in conversations about Black organizing.
Rewire: After peacefully protesting in Ferguson last October, you explained to your college paper, The Clarion, that there are Ferguson-like police brutality cases everywhere, and that it’s time to “get involved and wake up.” Are you hoping to wake some folks up with your hashtag? And would you say you have?
JG: I’m hoping to wake people up to the racial disparities within education. How can we change that? Future educators—how does this realization affect the way that you’re going to teach? Do you realize that we don’t teach everyone’s history equally? People of color are overlooked and women are nonexistent. The amount of women of color that I have learned about in school is a joke.
Rewire: Come the end of the month, what do you want people to know about Black history that they didn’t learn in school?
JG: I want people to know that Black history is expansive and beautiful. We have contributed to society. We have a rich history. We have fought so hard and persevered against all odds.
Rewire: What’s been your biggest takeaway so far?
JG: My biggest takeaway has been that women of color are overlooked. They have been putting in work for the longest time but never receive the credit for it. I think we still see that with the #BlackLivesMatter movement now. The intersection of racism and sexism is a dangerous one, which I’m still seeking to learn about every day.
I would also like to say that I realize Black history begins before we were brought to the United States. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about African history, so I haven’t profiled anyone from African history yet. I’m hoping that others will use the hashtag and contribute in ways that I can’t. I realize my limited knowledge and am continuing to learn from others every day. This hashtag is meant to be a community experience. We’re all learning while teaching others.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.