As an educator, I taught Black History Month for my entire career. However, as a child of the South, I was never taught anything about Black history. One reason is because February was not designated as Black History Month until 1976. Yet, even in my high school, years after that date, I never heard mention of it.
When I began teaching, I added in the mainstays into my lessons, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. I taught them every year, but it was hard to squeeze them into the regular curriculum. Depending on the grade level (I taught k-5), it wasn’t easy to integrate their stories into the time period I was teaching, so I did what most teachers do, I taught them in isolation. I read a book out loud about each of their lives. I had my students write some kind of response, then I tucked the books away until next year, and checked Black History Month off my list.
I used to resent the fact I had to make room for Black History Month in an already packed curriculum, not because of the historic figures I was teaching, but because teaching it wasn’t included in the required standards. The system didn’t allow time for teaching about these people in the curriculum, so if you were to teach Black history at all, it was ‘in addition to.’ Translation…extra work. Lessons which had to be prepared on top of the impossible-to-manage amount of information I was already required to teach. I had to find extra time in my schedule as well, but I taught about these remarkable people because I felt it was important for my students to be inspired by them, required or not.
In more recent years, there are some people of color who have been introduced into the curriculum. The third-grade standards required teachers to add Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune, Cesar Chavez and others, to the historical figures taught. In fifth grade, standards were added to teach the Harlem Renaissance, with Dizzy Gillesby, Langston Hughes and others, in addition to the period of the Civil Rights Movement.
These changes of the standards were an attempt to increase awareness of Black history, but in many ways, these changes were still not a great fit into the flow of the curriculum. The issues surrounding the people chosen to be taught about in third grade are over the heads of third graders. (Don’t get me started on educational standards that are developmentally inappropriate or we will be here all day.) And in fifth, the sheer amount of history to be covered, from World War I- the Digital Age, only allows a few days to cover all of the Civil Rights Movement. It is more like a survey of history than an in-depth study. The impact has been minimal, which again, doesn’t do much more than check boxes.
In recent months, with my newly opened eyes, I am shocked at how little I know about Black history. Is it any wonder? First, I was never taught any of it when I was in school. Then, in my profession, it was in addition to, rather than central to, the curriculum. And here is where it gets personal…because even now, I think about how little effort I expended to teach about important Black people. How much research did I do on the people and events in Black history, even once I was required to teach about them? How little creativity did I use to develop my lessons? I mean, I could take just about any movie and find a connection to the curriculum so I could have a movie day, but I couldn’t figure out how to work in amazing Black historical figures? What is this gap in my teaching practice I have never seen before? Why is it I spent hours on a hands-on creative project for teaching about rocks, but I hardly lifted more than a small book for Black history?
It is my whiteness is exposed. Again. My inability to place importance on Black History Month shows my white supremacy roots. Roots I was unaware of, until a few months ago. Looking in the mirror, I see a highly creative teacher, who prides herself on being able to make any standard relevant in the lives of her students. Yet, the standards about people of color are the ones I gave less effort to, because I “didn’t have time” to teach them as thoroughly. It was a gaping hole in my teaching practice, which now that I see my blind spot, makes sense. On an individual level I could have done so much more.
On a system level, there was some attempt to build in some people of color and some events from Black history, but it is awkward and cumbersome the way the standards were added. Like an afterthought. Not blended into history as part of the same country, added without context or continuation. In history, one event relates to another, like the causes of WWII. They are multilayered and complex, and we teach them as such. Yet, when it comes to Black history, we cherry-pick our historical figures, and we white-wash the events by either minimizing them or not teaching them at all.
In the past few months, I have been learning about the richness of Black history and the complex issues of how Black history intertwines with the history of my people, interwoven and interlaced. More importantly, I have also learned hidden history, which I was never aware of before. Things we never teach our children, like red-lining, the Tulsa Race Massacre, the Green Book or the racial cleansing that happened in our area of Ga. by lynching. History is filled with ugly parts which should not be overlooked or white-washed, in fact that is all the more reason to study these events, to avoid the same mistakes in the future and to try to bring healing from the past.
To take off my rose-colored glasses and really look has been hard. However, beyond the hard and difficult parts of the struggle through Black history, are some really beautiful parts as well. Some rich and amazing lives to which I have been denied by the system, as well as my own ignorance. People like Fannie Lou Hamer, Claudette Colvin, Bessie Coleman, James Baldwin, and A. Philip Randolph. (In my quest, James Baldwin is perhaps the greatest surprise I have found. How could I have missed this man’s work? Now I am drinking it in like a thirsty man in the desert.) I have learned of the service of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Freedom Riders, and those who continued the struggle for freedom of not only Black Americans, but fought for ALL Americans in the World Wars. It is an entire history of which I have been unaware, until I went looking for it.
I am doing my best to correct this by studying. I am finding a depth of spirit in the historical figures to which I am introducing myself. They are inspirational in their endurance. They are flawed humans, as are we all, but with a passionate desire for freedom. Perfection has never been their goal; liberty is the hard-fought objective. And fought they have, for every inch of equality, for every step of freedom. Perseverance is an understatement. Commitment to the cause of freedom is an ache in their bones. It cries out in their souls. Their shed blood cries out for it from the graves of their ancestors. The hardship and the suffering wrought in their history has shaped them into a community that depends on one another because they can’t depend on us.
Every human has the desire to be seen and known. Every human has the desire to be acknowledged and accepted. When we erase the history of people of color, we blot out entire people groups. We deny them the privilege of existence in the world, and in so doing, we deprive ourselves of their contributions and their perspective, which by the way, take so much more than one month to learn. It is an entire history, as complicated and complex as the one I learned about my own ancestors.
Why would we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn ALL of history, not just the parts we pick and choose? Maybe because it is ugly and painful, but ultimately a hard look in the mirror brings the transformation we all say we need. If this piece has made you uncomfortable, I encourage you to resist the urge to deflect, blame or self-defend. Instead, look underneath for the reasons for the discomfort. Look in the mirror and ask the tough questions of yourself. I can attest it is not an easy thing to do, but there is so much to be learned that it is worth any effort to remove the blinders.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. ~James Baldwin
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. ~James Baldwin
The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. ~James Baldwin
Some places to start learning about the Black history you never knew:
https://www.girltrek.org/ (Black History Bootcamp podcast)