Every February since 1946, Black History Month has been celebrated as a great national holiday that sparked pride, joy, and excitement amongst Black adults and youth alike. Unfortunately, students today seem to lack this spark.
I hope educators and parents will bring passion and curiosity back into the lives of Black children experiencing boredom and a heightened sense of vulnerability during Black History Month.
In the modern age where education is constantly expanding, changing, and innovating, it seems that Black voices and history are often frozen in time. Although some educators and educational resources push to be progressive in the content they expose students to, most classrooms begin Black history with the horrifyingly brutal history of slavery and end with the Civil Rights Movement. Occasionally, a few modern politicians get to push the envelope such as former President Barack Obama or Supreme Court Justice Kentaji Brown Jackson. Still, the lack of updated information is an issue that will likely stick around. Although political history is important and can be exciting, when it is the only history presented to students they can easily get tired of it.
In addition to stagnation in the types of achievements presented in the classroom, there is often a lack of diversity in the voices presented. For example, many of the Black leaders that are presented fit more or less within a narrow worldview. There is a startling deficit in education about Black people who are unreligious, LGBTQIA+, children, disabled, or those whose activism and achievements lean more to the artistic than the political. This content is simply not relatable to many of these students
Students who are in minoritized groups are often hyper-vigilant in the classroom. This is especially the case when content overlaps with their identity. Students who do not usually get to see themselves in educational spaces already feel “other than” and “less than” in an educational context. These internalized sentiments get amplified due to the uncertainty of the teacher’s and peers’ thoughts and comments on the subject matter. The “othering” of Black voices continues through the educational practice of teaching white history all year in a multitude of contexts but putting Black history on the back burner, then cramming it into the shortest month of the year.
During Black History Month, Black students are likely on the lookout for micro-aggressions and even some slurs to be used. Since Black history is not often taught year-round, many students struggle with knowing what to say or ask during this time of the year. Unfortunately, a lack of cultural sensitivity can put a huge damper on a month meant to celebrate the achievements and milestones of the Black community. For example, non-Black students may ask questions about why Black people endured slavery passively for hundreds of years while waiting for President Lincoln to save them. The student who asks this question is missing a lot of context about slave revolts and measures taken to deter rebellion. When this complex history is ignored, sugar-coated, or glossed over, Black students suffer the most due to ignorant comments and purposeful erasure.
Intense feelings of vulnerability are to be expected due to the lack of Black joy within the classroom. From American slavery to the Civil Rights Movement, there is a bombardment of Black suffering. Students learn about attack dogs, whipping, stolen inventions, starvation, and those who endured these things before they were rewarded with the happiness, peace, and equality they deserved (if they received this at all). The alienation of Black joy and success from the classroom can exacerbate embarrassment and vulnerability, pushing Black students into a victim mindset.
Because Black History is often seen as foreign or different, non-Black teachers often have a difficult time making relevant connections that they think will relate to their students. A common mistake non-Black teachers make in classrooms is putting Black children on the spot and demanding they share their experiences with racism in front of the class. Many also call on Black students more during lessons about Black history which can make students uneasy at the thought of answering incorrectly when they feel expected to be the “expert” on this information.
Some teachers also expect Black students to carry the class when conversations and content both become difficult. One example of this is when non-Black teachers feel uncomfortable reading a book or quote that has the N-word in it, so they may choose to ask a Black student, who may also feel uncomfortable, to do the emotional labor of reading the word aloud.
To help others avoid the mistakes listed in this article, I have some helpful suggestions on how to bring back passion and curiosity to Black History Month. First of all, Black history is history, so stop treating it like an extracurricular activity. With the multitude of achievements and impact that Black people have had globally, there is no reason that their stories should be confined to one month. Next, find a way to incorporate light and joyful subject matter. Black joy is revolutionary and contagious. Spread more of it. Additionally, continue to make sure that the curriculum continues to expand and evolve with everything else in the world. There are an infinite amount of topics, themes, and figures that deserve a spotlight in the classroom. Finally, no one is perfect. Mistakes will be made, important lessons will be left out, and the students will forget a lot of what they learned, but that does not mean we should stop trying to give them a fulfilling and substantive education on Black history.