Black History Month: Teaching Beyond Slavery

Avoid minimizing Black history; include the full human experience beyond enslavement.
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Black History Month should serve as an exhilarating time to fill in the gaps left by textbooks and state curriculum standards. It should also inspire teachers to continue this education beyond February, teaching Black and non-Black students how they can affirm the existence and humanity of Black lives year-round. 

It’s OK to teach about the resilience of Black people despite the structures in place to uphold a racial hierarchy; we already know, for example, that more work is needed to help students learn the history of American slavery and the civil rights movement accurately. 

But it’s also critical that teachers show that people of African descent have contributed more than forced, free labor to U.S. history. Students deserve opportunities to examine Black literature, art, innovations and customs that have helped shape the culture of the United States—and the world. 

This article is part of our series on teaching Black History Month. Read the others for a comprehensive approach to teaching this important part of American history:

These opportunities can be found across all areas of curricula, including math, science, social studies and English language arts. 

For example, when she taught English, Jamilah Pitts used the Harlem Renaissance to highlight the works of writers and scholars who reclaimed the dignity of Black people with their art. Through texts, students got to see “creativity, joy, resistance, celebration and beauty”—all of which are relevant today during the era of #BlackLivesMatter and a resurgence of the Black Is Beautiful and Black Power movements.  

Math and science teachers also have a breadth of material to explore, from the biographies and contributions of Black scientists and mathematicians to those of Black people who made modern-day comforts possible through their work in aeronautics and computer technology.

In social studies and history curricula, the options are endless. There are history lessons everywhere—lessons that, if examined carefully, show the influence of African and African-American traditions and customs on American culture. 

It’s in how we eat. The taste of Southern cooking—or soul food—is shaped by the way enslaved Africans prepared food and by the use of foods native to Africa, such as black-eyed peas, okra and yams.  

It’s in the music we listen to. Instruments such as the drums and banjo have African origins and made their way to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade. Modern American music grew from blues, jazz and gospel—traditions that are historically Black. 

It’s in how we communicate. Call and response, which we see in religious settings, music and civic engagement, has a long, deep history in many African traditions as a customary way people interact with each other in public spaces. 

Through these explorations, Black students can see themselves reflected in the curriculum and are more likely to engage with these important lessons. The humanization of Black lives can also motivate non-Black students to become better collaborators in the fight for social justice.  


Going Way Back

We know that Black history didn’t begin or end with slavery. Yet, the way we’re taught about history in U.S. classrooms, the arrival of the first Africans in the colonies is the first most students learn of Black history.

The African continent has been represented as a source of wealth for the rest of the world since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, and as a hotbed for conflict and famine when it ended. Rarely do textbooks delve into Black history before the slave trade, nor do they assess how that institution affected the entire continent. Educators should explain to students that Africa is a vast, diverse continent with long, complex histories and today comprises 55 recognized countries. Students should learn as much about the Mali and Benin empires as they do the British and Roman empires. 

Would they be surprised to know that the Mali Empire, once a large region in West Africa, was one of the world’s most powerful in the 14th century? That its ruler, Mansa Musa, is said to be the richest person in history? They might want to know that Timbuktu, an ancient Mali city, was a cultural, academic and economic hub for centuries. 

The Kingdom of Aksum, located in what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea, is considered one of the most powerful—a rival to the Greek and Roman empires. It was known for its language (establishing one of the first written scripts in Africa), architecture, trade with Europe and the Far East, and status as one of the first empires to adopt Christianity. 

In addition to the trade of valuable resources, a number of African empires gave the world unique art, mathematical and technological innovation, and appreciation for academic scholarship. 

An impressive review of African history can be seen in the PBS docuseries Africa’s Greatest Civilizations, hosted by scholar Henry Louis Gates. Find tips on how to weave this series into other lessons throughout the year in “Repositioning Africa’s Place in the Classroom.” 


Establishing Context

While exploring African history in more depth, it’s important to show that the connections among Africa, the Americas and the rest of the world go beyond the slave trade—and how those connections affect our world today. Teach how imperialism and colonization, in the Scramble for Africa, changed the continent forever. 

It’s also vital to introduce students to the African Diaspora—communities around the world that formed as a result of the dispersal of people from the continent. Students will see how Black people in places like the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, France, the United Kingdom and the United States all share some of the same cultural ties. 

And it’s a good time to examine how identities intersect and how oppressive systems have affected not only Black people in Africa and the West but also Indigenous Black people in parts of Asia and Australia


Empowerment Over Miseducation

Educators help set the tone for how students view themselves and the world. Dismissive attitudes about Black history can make a lasting impression on young minds. The key to teaching Black history is to not only acknowledge the hard truths about history but also to help Black students feel empowered about their identities. 

All students should engage in lessons that center Black people whose narratives aren’t always steeped in oppression and struggle. They created. They built. They were revolutionaries. Show students that Black people throughout American history—and throughout world history—have always had full human experiences. Black history isn’t a tragedy, and teaching and learning it can and should be a celebration.

Dillard is a senior writer for Learning for Justice.

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