BY TARIAH HYLAND
There I was, sitting at my desk in front of my computer, heart racing and palms sweating, staring into Zoom. I knew I would never forget this moment. This was the moment that would change not only my life but the lives of thousands of students across Delaware. And this wasn’t just any Zoom call: this was the legislative hearing where I defended the bill that would require schools statewide to teach Black history — my history.
At the time, our bill requiring district and charter schools to teach Black history and culture was one of the most comprehensive in the country, and the momentum was on our side. Yet in two short years, the tide has turned. Now, dozens of states are moving to restrict teaching Black history. Even the College Board is backpedaling on its plans for an African-American Studies course.
This confluence of cowardice is a disgrace, and it’s up to young people like me to stop it.
I didn’t always fancy myself an activist. If you asked me at the beginning of 2020 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered “a trauma surgeon.” But after the murder of George Floyd, I could no longer pretend Black bodies and Black voices were valued the same as White bodies and voices. As one of only a few Black girls in my Middletown high school, I had quietly accepted the microaggressions and cultural erasing because I believed my voice was too small to make a difference. But as the voices of thousands of Black activists rose in defiance around me, I decided it was time to join them.
Founding the Delaware Black Student Coalition was my first step. My school initially told me starting a club for Black students would be too divisive, so I started a group not for students at my school but for all Delaware students. Once we found our community, we found our power. Together, we began pushing back on the systems that had oppressed us our entire lives.
Then, when a fellow student, Tyler Busch, and I connected with State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker to push for a statewide Black history requirement, the true fight began.
Over the course of several months, we participated in and led calls with education experts and experienced legislative writers. We had to learn how to craft the language in a way that gave teachers creative freedom but also didn’t give schools loopholes or workarounds. After several discussions, we helped write the bill that would require school districts and charter schools serving K-12 students to teach subjects like the history and culture of Black people prior to the African and Black Diaspora, the significance of enslavement in the development of the American economy, and the contributions of Black people to American life, history, literature, economy, politics and culture.
Then we coached students and supporters on how to effectively speak to the committee of state legislators. We sat at that wooden table as expert witnesses and answered the committee’s questions, defending our bill. And we listened to hours of public comment about the bill, including significant opposition. It was terrifying. I wondered what I was even doing there.
Though I had always known this bill was important, it wasn’t until June 17, 2021, when House Bill 198 was signed into law, that I realized the historical significance of my actions. Seeing the pride, happiness and hope in my peers’ eyes, I realized I didn’t want to be a trauma surgeon when I grew up anymore — I wanted to pursue a career in policy building and law. Today, I am pre-law, studying political science at Howard University.
Like me, the youth of today are realizing our power. After living through school shootings, increasing climate change and a pandemic, we are saying, “Enough is enough!!” Across the nation, we are rising to fight for our rights. Florida students are walking out for equal education, Kentucky students are fighting for nondiscriminatory hair policies, and Texas students are protesting anti-trans policies. These are just a few cases of students realizing their power. Like me, they have realized that their small voices can become powerful when joined together.
So to all the students who are having their right to knowledge restricted: I know it seems hopeless sometimes and the fight seems too big to win. I have been in your shoes, I have fought the same battles, and I have won. You can, too. Your voice is powerful. Don’t be afraid to voice your concerns to your legislators and representatives. Be consistent, keep going back and bothering people. Make them hear you. And lean on your communities. There is power in numbers. Don’t stop fighting, because when you lose hope, that’s when they win.
And to the legislators, representatives and elected officials who claim to be the voice of the people: listen. We’re making good trouble, and justifiably so. Youth are qualified to speak on the issues that affect their past, present and future. Don’t just give us a seat at the table — give us a microphone.
Tariah Hyland is co-founder of the Delaware Black Student Coalition. She worked with State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker and her fellow students to draft what would become House Bill 198, to mandating Black history education in Delaware.