Black History Month Refresh

Today is Monday, February 1st. Such a neat and tidy beginning to Black History Month. 

Hopefully, there is already programming in place in your classroom, school, or organization to commemorate it.  I hope even more that this month is not the first time Black History is being taught nor will it be confined to the next 28 days.

Beyond teaching the identity calendar, my overall priority is to make sure my curriculum includes multiple perspectives and builds the cultural competence of my students, with the goal of creating space for each of them to be seen and represented in some capacity. This means my curriculum must be dynamic and able to adapt to the new groups of students I get each year. Equally important, I am always challenging myself to learn more and dig deeper, then bring that back to the classroom. If the lessons are stale for me, they won’t ring authentically important to my students either. 

*EDITING TO ADD: I recently talked about this topic and many of the resources below on The Kojo Nnamdi show which also featured Dr. Greg Carr.

If you are first starting out or are less familiar with Black History, definitely rely on tried and true resources from justice centered teaching organizations. A few suggestions include:

Here are a few other fresh and inspiring ways to teach Black History Month.

Teach the Collective

There was a terrific article by Imani Perry in the New York Times called “Do We Ask Too Much of Black Heroes”?  In it she argues that:

Heroes, as historians and activists have noted for generations, are often made mythic in ways that are troubling. Social change is never wrought by individuals. Movement is a collective endeavor and the romantic ideal of the hero obscures that truth. Recent social movements like the Movement for Black Lives have been deliberate about describing themselves as leaderless or “leader-full,” in order to emphasize the importance of collective organizing while rejecting the model of the charismatic male leader. 

Perry also quotes the words of Ella Baker: “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” This is the lesson our children need in this moment: that they do not need to wait for a hero to lead or even wait until they feel like a leader themselves – they can band with a multi-talented group of others right now and get started on the work that concerns them.  Rejecting this individualistic view is in itself a rejection of white supremacist culture.  Definitely apropos. Some heroic groups to consider depending on the curricular focus and age of the students:

  • Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • Freedom Schools
  • Freedom Democratic Party
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
  • Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
  • Black Panther Party
  • Cohambee River Collective of Black Feminists
  • National Association of Colored Women
  • Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
  • Tuskegee Airmen
  • Harlem Hellfighters
  • Black Wall Street
  • Black towns and settlements

Teach the Truth

I really appreciate the following articles which emphasize “unlearning white supremacy” as the primary goal of Black History Month. If our lessons merely support false narratives about Black people and our place in this country, it truly would be better to not teach them at all. 

Additinally, part of telling the truth is lifting up stories of activists and organizers who have contributed, but may be left out of the known narrative due to multiple levels of marginalization, which can include being female, queer, disabled, or poor.  In search of “perfect heroes” we overlook incredible ones or erase the nuance of complex lives.

If we are going to single out people, let’s make sure the hero canon is representative of the ENTIRE community. Kids should know that women like Claudette Colvin, Diane Nash, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer also steered the course of history.  They should be familiar with the work of LGBTQ activists like Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, and Marsha P. Johnson. Some of our heroes  had physical and mental struggles that we don’t talk about enough. Widening our perspective will allow for more connection. Here are some terrific resources for teachers who want to strengthen their knowledge about Black history, learn from Black perspectives, and make sure they are getting the narratives right.  

  • In Class With Carr is an awesome Youtube show and podcast with Karen Hunter and Dr. Greg Carr of Howard University. I recommend the YouTube version because he magically pulls books from a vast and intriguing library.
  • Black Past is a helpful encyclopedia style resource with global and African-American entries.
  • The GirlTrek Black History Bootcamp Podcast is great fun for the mind and body.  It will have you walking and learning at the same time. 
  • The Equal Justice Initiative Calendar presents a History of Racial Injustice and is a heartbreaking catalogue with an entry for every day of the year.  Posted casually in the classroom it elicits lots of questions and conversations. 
  • The Great Unlearn with Rachel Cargle is a self-paced curriculum. Follow them on Instagram for daily topics to research. 

Teach the Future

You cannot teach about Black history and not support today’s freedom movements. The Black Lives Matter movement was just nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.  It is growing stronger and clearer in its purpose and goals. It is accomplishing incredible things in local communities. NOW is the time to engage this modern iteration of the freedom struggle as classroom material.  This week is actually The Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools.  

There are four primary demands, 13 guiding principles, and so many resources and ways to incorporate the messages.  One year my social studies class focused on learning about the school to prison pipeline and writing persuasive essays about the impact of police in schools.  Another year, the Black affinity group adopted the message of being “Unapologetically Black” and explored what that looked like in our predominantly white independent school.  Last year, I ran lunch groups to talk about the four demands and how we were connecting them to current events and the books we were reading.  All of those experiences were powerful.  Get creative, use the time that you can, and don’t doubt that these topics will be interesting and relevant to a wide range of students. There is even a coloring book.  Mindful art moment, anyone?

Afrofuturism is another way to talk about the future of Blackness while incorporating current artists, authors, and activists.  There are incredibly talented people engaging in this renaissance to imagine a future for Black people outside of white supremacy. Black Futures by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham is a great primer and work of art in itself.

Additionally the Movement for Black Lives declares this Black Futures Month and has released this gorgeous and powerful short film:

However you choose to engage this month, do it with love, solidarity, and authentic interest.  Our students know when we are just checking boxes and Black History is too important for that. 

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