During the past year, time has felt fluid. I have lost track of days and have had to write down everything just to get tasks accomplished. This year has also led me to reflect on the need for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) without artificial time constraints. February is when we celebrate Black History Month, a time when the complex history and countless contributions made by African Americans are recognized. It would be disingenuous to say Black History Month is universally celebrated. I see nothing controversial or divisive about this recognition, but it has always been steeped in controversy. While the reasons given have changed, the reality remains the same. Some people continue to think it unnecessary to highlight the contributions of a group who have played an important role in our country’s history since its inception. Yet not recognizing these accomplishments speaks volumes, and our students are looking and listening. They are internalizing what we simply tolerate versus what we seamlessly and continuously incorporate into the American narrative. So while I am still questioning almost everything, including why time seems to be going by faster than ever, one thing to me is certain: Black history should be released from its February time capsule and authentically incorporated into our activities and curriculum throughout the year.
For many educators, Black History Month has been sanitized and relegated to clips of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and telling students that Rosa Parks is a hero because she was tired and refused to get off a bus. Unfortunately, many students mistakenly believe that Black Americans’ contributions are miniscule following such myopic discussions. We do not have to limit the timeframe nor the scope of the inclusion of Black excellence, and the past year has shown us this compartmentalization does everyone a disservice.
Black History Month observations often linger in the antebellum era. While this is obviously a significant time in Black history, it is only a part of the Black narrative. Slavery’s atrocities can never be minimized, but to focus on this era and then perhaps the Jim Crow era, to bookend a group’s history by its darkest periods of oppression and assault, is not a balanced representation of Black history. There are many ways to expand our view of Black history and to celebrate not only the trials, but also the resilience and innovations that are referred to by our students as Black Girl Magic and Black Boy Joy.
Below are just a few examples of people, events, and sites that can and should be incorporated into a school’s curriculum.
Bass Reeves was a U.S. Marshall and is thought by many to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger.
Robert Smalls commandeered a heavily armed Confederate ship and delivered its 17 black passengers from slavery to freedom.
Ralph Bunche was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating armistice agreements between Israel and four Arab states.
National Geographic Kids provides Black history information for younger students.
Check out the birthplaces of 50 African-American history makers.
Tracy K. Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Laureate of the United States (2017-2019).
Mae C. Jemison is an astronaut and physician.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD (1831-1895), was the first black woman in the United States to receive an MD degree.
Daniel Hale Williams performed the world’s first successful heart surgery in 1893.
When discussing history, words matter. For example, referring to someone as “an enslaved person” instead of “a slave” gives humanity back to that person who was not considered a human being, but rather property to be bought, sold, or traded. Slave owners can be renamed enslavers. “Minorities” can be identified as an “underrepresented group,” “people of color (POC),” or “members of the global majority.” As one K-8 student suggested, plantations can be referred to as “forced labor camps” to ensure they are not romanticized. It is absolutely possible to create a culture of inclusion with both our words and actions. School librarians are always at the forefront of progressive education, and we must ensure that our schools and school libraries include the entire American story.
Every American’s experience needs to be shared with our students. I am not suggesting we discontinue recognizing Black History Month or any other celebration, but I do advocate for ongoing inclusion of Black history into our school’s curriculum. We still need to acknowledge and celebrate all groups while also embracing the humanity in all of us and not normalizing man’s inhumanity to others. Whether you are collaborating with students or colleagues or having dinner with your family, we all need to understand that everyone matters and then act accordingly. I stand in support of any group that is under attack or does not feel seen or heard. Ultimately, we as educators and human beings have to be supportive allies who model inclusion in the lives of our learning communities and the world.
Additional Black History Resources:
“26 Little-Known Black History Facts You May Not Have Learned in School”: https://www.oprahmag.com/life/a35181062/black-history-facts/
PBS Black Culture Connection’s “Classroom Resources for Educators”: https://www.pbs.org/black-culture/educational-resources/
“Black History Month in Schools–Retire or Reboot?” https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/02/black-history-monthretire-or-reboot/470124/
“14 Black Inventors You Probably Didn’t Know About”: https://thinkgrowth.org/14-black-inventors-you-probably-didnt-know-about-3c0702cc63d2