February is here and teachers across the world are about to partake in a month-long celebration of African American history and culture. Over the years, there have been various instances wherein intent did not match impact, and Black history celebrations have gone awry. While it is our hope that students from all walks of life are engaged in meaningful lessons and celebrations surrounding Black history and culture, the truth is that many students will either not be exposed to Black culture at all, or they will be exposed to Black culture that has been diluted and adulterated by teachers’ fears and discomfort approaching the subject. Before you throw caution to the wind, consider the following points in your celebrations of Black History Month this year or in years to come.
Black History Is Not About Color and Kindness
While this is definitely a topic that all teachers should address with students, Black History Month is not Kindness Awareness Month. Black History Month is a month that is dedicated to acknowledging the struggles African Americans have faced as citizens of this country, celebrating the contributions they have made to our society, and standing in solidarity with the continued efforts toward equal rights and equitable experiences. A focus on color and kindness is an avoidance mechanism that many classroom teachers use to alleviate the responsibility of teaching true Black history which for many, for one reason or another, may be uncomfortable.
Tell the Truth: Don’t Perpetuate False Narratives
It is extremely important that Black history is taught in its purest form. Language is an important factor in this case when approaching the narratives in Black history. The way a story is told can completely change students’ perceptions of what actually occurred. For example, saying “slaves were brought from Africa” is incorrect. People were brought from Africa and forced into slavery. Another example that frequently comes up involves the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Many teach that he “died in the fight for civil rights,” but that takes the sting out of what really happened: he was assassinated. Educators have a responsibility to teach truth, and the fact is that truth is often uncomfortable; however, it is still important that we share this truth with our students because altering their perception of the past does nothing to assist them in understanding our present reality.
Don’t Stick To The Basics: Do Your Research
There is more to Black history than slavery, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and the Civil Rights Movement. Curriculum often plays it safe when it comes to Black history and students are exposed to the same figures and events year in and year out. There are a host of equally important figures and events in Black history that almost never get mentioned. What about Black Wall Street? The Little Rock Nine? Marcus Garvey? Teachers who are dedicated to exposing students to Black history have a responsibility to go deeper than just “the basics.”
Don’t Reduce Black History to Memes and Pop Culture
Social media has played a major role in branding Black History Month. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of posts with teachers decorating doors with well-known memes featuring famous black people, using lyrics from popular songs, rapping with students during their lessons, and creating various “challenges” to go along with it all. Black history is a serious matter and should not be reduced to singing, dancing, or a good photo op for Instagram. There is a certain level of reverence and respect that comes along with the celebration and teaching of Black history and culture.
Black History Month is loaded with the potential to inspire our students beyond the curriculum in ways that can change how they interact with each other and the world they live in. History, when taught in its fullness, unlocks for students many of the mysteries that come with exploring how our society was shaped into what it is today. As an educator, we are pressed from all sides when it comes to what we teach and sometimes how we teach it, but we cannot afford to let Black history be pushed aside. Not just in February, but all year long, I challenge you to incorporate Black history into your classrooms, not just because I asked you to, but because it is necessary.
Dr. James Avery is a middle school assistant principal who formerly taught high school English for four years. His passions are inclusive curriculum and culturally-responsible discipline which are the focuses of his doctoral studies. When not at school, Dr. Avery enjoys spending time with his family, writing, reading, and cooking. For questions, or to continue this conversation on the celebration of Black history, find Dr. Avery on instagram @thedapperap.