Teaching Black History in March
As the middle school history manager at Success Academy, I — like other educators around the country — have grappled with how best to celebrate Black History Month. Teaching black history is increasingly challenging precisely because of a renewed national commitment to teach it, and to teach it well. After a seminal year in American race relations that focused our national spotlight on persistent, systemic inequities facing communities of color, educators are more aware than ever of the potential pitfalls of teaching black history the way we always have: pretty poorly.
Typically, well-intentioned educators spend the month of February teaching a narrow story of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the sentimental firsts”: the first black senators, the first black doctors, etc. This story is often taught as if black history began with enslavement and ended with a dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In my own practice as a teacher, I fell into this trap; an approach that, even at its best, tokenizes black Americans and tells a limited story of adversity and accomplishment.
I felt this, even as I taught much this way in my classroom. This approach felt empty, unsatisfying. And so I found myself asking, What is the alternative?
There is certainly no simple answer, but prevailing practice now recognizes that the challenge of teaching black history well demands the teaching of two stories simultaneously: one, an honest history of the unparalleled challenges black people have faced throughout American history; and the other, an equally honest history of collective agency and resilience in the face of this adversity. Teaching just one story, or teaching both of them as distinct from each other, fails to do justice to either. Viewed in this way, the goal of black history education is to face the hard truths of past oppression and injustice honestly, but to do so alongside the equally real story of social, cultural, and political achievement.
And yet, even this “tale of two stories” fails to resonate with me as a teacher of history. This philosophy still stigmatizes black history as an alternative history, even if unintentionally. It treats black history as something to be taught in addition to, but not as a part of, “real” (read: white) American history. To teach black history well is to acknowledge that we can only empower all our students, black and white, when we fully embrace black history as what it is: American history.
To teach black history well is to acknowledge that we can only empower all our students, black and white, when we fully embrace black history as what it is: American history.
Educators must demand a fundamental shift in our history instruction in order to accomplish this vision. We can no longer accept black history as a story added to a body of American history in an effort to right past wrongs. Instead, we must reject any telling of American history that omits black history as incomplete, inaccurate, and detrimental to students’ understanding of the past. In practice, this means that the best way to celebrate black history in our schools is to commit ourselves, as citizens and educators, to making it a regular part of history class.
At Success Academy, that means that before we teach the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, scholars study Mansa Musa and medieval African civilization. When we teach the Declaration of Independence, scholars study Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker. When we teach abolition, scholars study John Brown and Nat Turner. When we teach industrialism, scholars study Henry Ford and Madam C.J. Walker. When we teach about muckraking, scholars study Upton Sinclair and Ida B. Wells. These figures — and so many more — are essential to fully understanding American history, be it during Black History Month or not.
This does not mean that a special focus on black history in February is the source of the narrow story we often teach, as if the mere acknowledgment of black history in a single month limits us for the rest of the year. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite. The purpose of Black History Month is to call attention to the fact that black history is not part of our national narrative — but should be. Without Black History Month, I seriously doubt teachers around the country would be discussing how to teach black history at all. Black History Month has kept the issue in our national consciousness, demanding that we continuously reflect on issues of racial justice. It reminds us all that we must continue to work to present an American history that no longer treats black voices as enrichment beyond the standard curriculum, but as essential to a complete knowledge of the past.
In the words of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who called for the celebration of “Negro History Week” that is now Black History Month, “We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”
One day, when black history is institutionally recognized as an essential part of any story of American history, perhaps we will no longer need to call special attention to it in February. But until that day, the best way teachers around the country can celebrate black history is to teach it as a core part of the American story — today, on March 1, and beyond.