Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Black History Month & the Classroom

Note - As of this writing, I am two days removed from a Facebook Live broadcast that I conducted this past Sunday night of the same title of this blogpost. There is so much to say on this topic that after talking for an hour and a half on FB Live, I knew it was time to bring it to an end. Although 8000 people have seen the broadcast to date, I know that many simply don’t have the time to sit and watch a vid for an hour and a half so what I have done here is capture a few of the more important points I raised in the video.

Why Black History Month? The creator of Black History Month, a Howard University professor and dean, Dr. Carter G. Woodson (a name you should all know), actually created it as a week-long observance for the 2nd week of February to commemorate the birthdates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. He coined it Negro History Week and it commenced in 1926. He saw at that time a need to bring attention to the history of the people who were descendants of Africa. This history was vastly unknown and quite unfortunately, that continues to be our reality today in 2018. Dr. Woodson saw the need for people of all races and ethnicities to read, research, study and learn the struggles, accomplishments and experience of the people of African descent. By no means did he feel that this should be confined to a week in February though. Negro History Week was simply a time to place a particular focus on a topic that would take a lifetime to learn and absorb. It was a vehicle. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, Negro History Week evolved into what is now called, Black History Month.

As a classroom teacher, the aforementioned reference to Black History Month’s origin must be taught. In so many classrooms across America, children experience various forms of observing Black History Month via reports, research papers, projects, assemblies, presentations, field trips, etc., but for whatever the reason, in so many cases, it is not explained to them why Black History Month was created and who’s idea it was to create it.

In a month, in all actuality, there really isn’t enough time to cover much of anything and consequently, there is a clarion call out there for Black History to be a lifelong pursuit. But with the observance of the month, it is imperative that you still allow your students (all of them) to gain the most they can from it. To that end, you must consider your starting point. The temptation is real to start teaching African American History during the enslavement period beginning with the arrival of the first African Americans in Jamestown, VA in 1619. I cannot overemphasize how wrong this practice is, regardless of the racial composition of your students. For the sake of discussion, let’s explore this from the vantage point of your black students and your white students.

If your black students are being introduced to Black History via a lesson on slavery, you are unintentionally putting your black students at a mental, emotional, psychological deficit and disadvantage which in many cases might be permanent. In other words, you are introducing them to who they are historically as slaves….as captives…as property and thereby considered subhuman. This is a grossly detrimental way to introduce Black History to black students because it denies them of a fuller, broader, longer historical context that they can feel pride in. Starting them off in slavery introduces them to their history and therefore themselves in defeat. Again, some mentally, emotionally and psychologically never overcome this reality.

The period of enslavement in the U.S. lasted from 1619 – 1863…244 years. Your black students have a rich and glorious history on the African continent that goes back thousands of years. Those years cannot be denied because they too represent the ancestry of your black students. The goal of history is to enlighten the reader about the past but it is also tool of empowerment toward the future. In order for Black History Month to serve as a tool of empowerment, you must first and foremost expose your students and in this case, your black students to their African past which include the various contributions in science, medicine, mathematics, technology, engineering, architecture, astronomy, writing and education to name a few.

Looking at the same problem of introducing Black History, but in this case to your white and other non-black students in the period of enslavement, you are sending these students the wrong message as well. Because the dynamic of slavery is white slave owners owning black captives, just as it puts that black child at a deficit mentally, emotionally and psychologically, it puts the white child in a superior or superiority position…at an advantage mentally, emotionally and psychologically. It says to the white child that he / she is a descendent of power…a descendent of conquerors. And although, this was the relationship between the two races in that era, it denies the broader context of the ancestry of your black students prior to this period. And because in schools, this emphasis on slavery is perpetuated in many cases throughout the entire K-12 experience and beyond, there are MANY who never recover from this omission of African History prior to the enslavement period, throughout their entire lives. Therefore, history can serve as an instrument of empowerment or a weapon of defeat. It all depends on perspective.

I will leave you with the GREATEST challenge for the classroom teacher in this regard…at the end of the day, you can only teach what you know. If you are a product of a school system that introduced you to Black History during the period of enslavement, one could make the argument that you don’t know much more than your students relative to Black History beyond 1619. Well that brings us full circle then. It becomes imperative that you engage in the initial intent of Negro History Week…to intensely learn the history of the descendants of Africa so that you will be in a position to teach it, with passion, to your students.

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