It’s Black History Month. The time of the year specifically designated to celebrate black achievements and pioneers in America. This month, thousands of teachers, black and white dug into their teacher resources looking for their handouts on slavery and the civil rights movement. Here is a challenge for celebrating black history moving forward: Don’t do that… at least not exclusively.
There is no way around it; the fact is that slavery and the civil rights movement are the two most important experiences in Black American history. However, these are not the ONLY experiences, yet they are just about the only ones we talk about. Black history month was started to ensure schools were teaching students Black history. Ironically, we might need to set a week aside within that month to encourage teachers to talk about something other than Jim Crow and slavery.
What is the harm in just using Black History month to teach Slavery and Civil Rights? Why should we deviate from the two largest influences in Black History?
There are actually a few reasons:
- It tells kids that black history is defined exclusively by slavery and second class citizenship.
Imagine what it’s like to be a black kid growing up in America and the only images you see of yourself in a textbook are of enslaved Africans, civil rights figures, and lynching victims. Worse still, imagine you are a white kid and those are the only images you see? We don’t really have to imagine. That is the reality for many school-age children. Images of enslaved black people are important to see, but if that’s all black kids ever see, they come away thinking that’s all they ever were.
- That part of history is relatively well known.
Not enough black history is known, but most students are familiar with slavery and the civil rights movement, at least on a surface level. If we taught black history like we taught other content, we would assess what students know and don’t know then adjust our teaching to fill the gaps. Most of your students can tell you who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is, but how many can tell you about Katherine Johnson?
- It perpetuates the myth of a post-racial society.
Consistently teaching students about how we overcame racism in the past gives students the impression that racism is in the past. Of course, we have come a long way, but we are not all the way there. The way we currently teach black history implies that racism happened in the past because, we don’t address modern or contemporary issues.
- There is so much more.
The biggest reason to look outside the traditional black history box is simply the fact there is so much more on the outside of the box. 200 plus years of slavery and Jim Crow is really only the tip of the iceberg. There is nothing wrong with teaching kids about the civil rights movement or slavery, and we definitely should. But if we are truly following the spirit of the month we should go deeper. Much deeper. This means that black should confine on March 1.