When Kamala Harris became the first Black woman sworn in as U.S. vice president, Amanda Gorman became the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history.
“We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour,” the 22-year-old Black writer recited to a nation still reeling from insurrection, “but within it we found the power to author a new chapter.”
Although it was an important day in Black history, the inauguration was just the first of many milestones in 2021. Juneteenth became a federal holiday. A record number of Black women mayors ran large U.S. cities. Across the globe, Black artists, athletes and students made history with their achievements.
As educators celebrate Black History Month with their students, remember that it’s not just about commemorating the distant past — it’s also about celebrating the recent achievements of Black people as they continue writing a new chapter in history.
“I think it’s really important to recognize that months like Black History Month were intended to be an opportunity for people to showcase what they’ve been doing all year long,” says Julia Torres, a Denver librarian, language arts teacher, educational activist and author of the upcoming ISTE book Liven Up Your Library: Design Engaging and Inclusive Programs for Tweens and Teens. “The intention, according to Carter G. Woodson, the originator of Black History Month, was that Black folks would be recognizing the contributions of other Black folks, and that the wider society would be doing the same, all year long.”
Black History Month is a good time for educators to rethink the way they teach Black history throughout the year. Students typically learn about Black history through enslavement and other oppression-centered narratives, writes LaGarrett J. King, founding director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education at the University of Missouri’s College of Education.
“Black people are taught as passive people and disconnected from their liberation. The prevailing narrative emphasizes white saviors and the federal government as Black people’s primary liberators,” King says. “The stale K-12 Black history instruction rarely builds on itself; instead, the same context and content are regurgitated throughout students’ educational careers.”
Below are some tips to help educators improve the way they teach Black History — in February and all year long.
1. Teach through Black voices
Don’t teach about Black history — teach through it, King says. Use texts by Black authors in every discipline.
“Teaching about Black history has meant that schools teach from how white people imagine Black histories. Teaching through Black history should mean listening, writing and teaching narratives from the actual historical experiences and voices of Black people.”
2. Highlight the achievements of Black people
Students often end up learning about the same handful of Black heroes over and over. Yet Black history is full of untold or rarely told stories. Research Black innovators and achievers within the subject areas you teach and highlight them in your lesson plans. For example, elementary students learning how to tell time can learn about Benjamin Banneker, who created the first American clock, suggests Rann Miller, director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center in New Jersey.
When teaching about the history of slavery in America, make a point of discussing both the economics of slavery and acts of resistance and rebellion by Black people, he adds.
“The enslavement of Africans built this nation’s economic foundation, and the entire nation benefited, so resistance and rebellion were met with brute force,” he says. “Nevertheless, enslaved Africans and their enslaved descendants resisted through sabotage, running away, and outright rebellion and revolt — hundreds of revolts happened during African enslavement.”
3. Center Black perspectives
When discussing milestones in Black liberation, such as key court cases, rethink narratives that focus on the actions of white saviors. For example, when teaching about Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, discuss the fact that many Black communities were not in favor of integrating schools.
“Black schools were culturally confirming, relevant and sustaining,” King says. “Integration meant transferring Black students to predominately white schools where instructional practices were culturally insensitive and racist. Black schools were closed, and many Black teachers and administrators lost their jobs.”
4. Honor Black humanity
It’s important not to gloss over the realities of slavery and oppression. But if students’ only takeaway from Black history is a narrative of pain and suffering, they’re getting a one-dimensional picture. Take some time to celebrate Black agency and joy — Facing History’s theme for Black History Month this year.
“Joy is a part of the human experience,” says Texas social studies teacher Jania Hoover. “When we separate Black people’s struggles from their humanity, we see them as less than human. When we see them as less than human, it becomes easier to justify continued racial disparities in society.
“Black joy and Black love are central themes for understanding Black history. Simply put, without a focus on Black joy, Black history is incomplete.”
Photos: (Clockwise from left) Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress; Fred Jones, inventor of the refrigeration truck; George Washington Carver, a botanist and inventor; and Recy Taylor, a civil rights activist. Library of Congress photos.