Why I’m Not a Fan of Black History Month
It’s February, which means that lessons on important African Americans are about to be dusted off in classrooms throughout the U.S. Get ready for a laundry list of African Americans that seems almost frozen in time.
Black History Month became a staple of U.S. classrooms in the 1960s, but had its origins as Negro History Week in the 1920s. Historian Carter Woodson began the week as a way to celebrate African Americans and their accomplishments. White historians of the time ignored African American history; Woodson wanted to correct that.
Fast forward to the 21st century. While modern historians have greatly changed the way they study American history, many school curriculums do not reflect these changes. Instead, Black History Month has become the dumping ground for African American history.
Here’s the deal: If you’re only teaching African American history during February, you’re not really teaching American history. The first Africans arrived in the English colonies in 1619, before the pilgrims even landed in Massachusetts. You cannot separate African Americans from American history and tell a complete story.
Why I’m Not a Fan of Black History Month
The lesson students get from Black History Month (or Women’s History Month or Hispanic History month) is that these figures really aren’t that important. Otherwise, wouldn’t they be a part of the regular curriculum? This group’s history isn’t part of “American history”, but somehow outside of that history.
Black History month perpetuates that idea that African Americans are “others”, not really part of the U.S. or its history.
Lack of Context
As a history teacher, I teach in roughly chronological order. Each time period is shaped by political and social patterns of an earlier era – events and people often don’t make sense when studied outside of that period.
Teaching Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Barack Obama together doesn’t really work historically. Trying to teach them in one group often means skipping all that context, making for bad history. (And boring stories.)
List o’ names
Black History month is often just a list of African American names. Yes, these people are important (love you Harriet, Frederick, Jackie, and Martin!), but so were many unnamed African Americans throughout history. And nothing bores kids more than memorizing a list of people and their accomplishments.
Let’s not forget the influences of black music, food, intellectual thought, and language on modern American culture. There is so much more to talk about than just that familiar list of people.
Many U.S. history curriculums see the African American Civil rights movement as a shining apex. Black Americans fought for and were given their Constitutional rights. And everything has been great since then. Story over.
Um, no. It didn’t really work that way. African Americans along with many other minority groups, are still fighting outright racism and the effects of systemic racism.
What should we do instead?
In our history classes, we should constantly be looking at the experiences and contributions of ALL groups – racial, ethnic, religious, gender – all the time. Thus, African American history should be woven into each unit.
However, I know that in some states, that is a tall order. (I’m looking at you Texas.) S
Here are some starting of my favorite points:
- TCI and its History Alive curriculum – TCI does an amazing job of getting students excited about history AND is inclusive of many minority groups. This was my main curriculum during my teaching career.
Definitelyuse the FREE 30-day trial.
- Stanford History Education Group – their lessons are accessible to so many different reading levels. My students always responded positively to these lessons, while practicing important historical thinking skills. And did I mention these are free??
- Cult of Pedagogy: Improving the Way We Teach about Slavery – This is a vitally important podcast episode for U.S. HIstory teachers. If you only make one change to Black History Month, please include a lesson on African Amerian resistance to slavery. Get ideas and resources in the podcast.
- Teaching Tolerance – They’ve created lessons for all grade levels on a variety of subjects. Their history lessons plans are incredibly diverse and make connections to life today.