Black History Month Teaching: Miseducation or Empowerment?

This high school English teacher encourages educators to focus on African Americans' contributions to the United States, with the Harlem Renaissance as a way to begin.
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"If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race. Such an effort would upset the program of the oppressor in Africa and America. Play up before the Negro, then, his crimes and shortcomings. Let him learn to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton. Lead the Negro to detest the man of African blood—to hate himself." — Dr. Carter G. Woodson, The Miseducation of the Negro 

Given the political, racial and social climate in which we are operating, teaching about black history in 2018 might be frightening, controversial even. You might be unsure of how to talk about race with your students, especially if your race or ethnicity differs from theirs. Or you might be concerned about responses from other educators, people in the community and even your students' families. Rest assured that you are not alone, but remember that one of the most powerful ways to change a society-and particularly to change racist stereotypes, beliefs and mindsets-is to teach children that they can be change agents.

Black History Month is an excellent time to highlight this power in young people, something I hope you're doing all year. One way to do this is to center black history instruction on the contributions of African Americans. All of our children need to know about Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, Dr. Mae Jemison, Daniel Hale Williams, The Tuskegee Airmen, Katherine Johnson, Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, Marian Anderson and Garrett Morgan. And the list goes on.
The question is where to begin. The Harlem Renaissance, which writer, scholar and educator Alain Locke called "The New Negro Movement," is a great place to start. This movement lends itself well to a number of age groups: It offers a diverse range of text types and the ability to tap into multiple learning styles. It's also socially relevant today, with its roots in reclaiming black dignity and black bodies during an era when African Americans were barely regarded as human. And it's another example of a time when, in the battle for their own rights, African Americans greatly enriched American culture and society.

For history teachers, anchoring a unit in the Great Migration might be a good way in. The diversity and cultural richness of cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago certainly have roots in the Great Migration. Starting here allows students to understand the ways that African Americans were being treated in the South between the Reconstruction era and the 1920s. It also allows for deep conversation about how, despite being "free," African Americans' experiences with injustice under Jim Crow led millions to leave the South and look for better lives and jobs elsewhere. Many African Americans came to New York City and settled in places like Harlem, where they created their own lives, forms of joy and entertainment, and spaces to love on one another and themselves. Despite the grim realities of gentrification that are erasing the presence of African Americans in Harlem today, a study of the Harlem Renaissance offers a number of critical, conscious and celebratory history lessons on the ability of African Americans to survive and thrive anyway

For English teachers like me, the Harlem Renaissance presents a wide variety of texts to teach. From the poetry of Langston Hughes and the novels of Zora Neale Hurston to the essays of W.E.B. DuBois, from the protest novels of Richard Wright to the plays and short stories of my own favorite writer, James Baldwin, the literary works that came out of the Harlem Renaissance provide a wealth of engaging choices for students at all levels. 

Moreover, a focus on the Harlem Renaissance during Black History Month is a good place to begin because of the messages of creativity, joy, resistance, celebration and beauty that are associated with this time period. After enduring several decades of post-slavery oppression, African Americans fled to places like Harlem to survive and be. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson writes of the people who made those journeys, "They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left." While places like Harlem were not utopias-distance and geography could not cure racism, poverty and sexism-they did create space and opportunities for African Americans to reclaim their personhood through the arts and intellectualism. Art was a form of resistance. 

Through an exploration of the Harlem Renaissance, students can learn about African American excellence and storytelling through music as well as literature. One cannot teach about this time in American history without introducing students to venues like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater, to the genres of jazz and the blues, or to prominent artists like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Studying this period, students come to understand that hip-hop was not the first musical innovation African Americans developed to respond to, reveal and resist injustice. The music of the Harlem Renaissance was as rhythmic and powerful as it was jarring and electrifying. 

Too often, African-American students will show frustration and an understandable sense of heaviness when learning about their history, since the narratives that teachers provide are frequently centered around slavery and oppression. These lopsided classroom and societal narratives create inaccurate and imbalanced notions of black identities. By not discussing African Americans of the past with the full range of human experience in mind-never teaching the triumphs with the trials-these narratives feed this perpetual lie of white superiority that we should be working hard to break with our teaching. 

While oppression is part of black history and black present, it is imperative that teachers don't make that the whole story. It is not OK to skip over the innumerable contributions of African Americans to the United States. Black children also need to engage with images and narratives of their people and ancestors as survivors, revolutionaries, artists, scientists, creators, musicians, dancers, astronauts, politicians and pioneers. All students need to engage with black history in this way. 

While the Harlem Renaissance is a great way to begin, this history is vast; there's so much more to explore. Black History Month provides a time to pause, consider and extend gratitude for the sacrifices of a beautiful, resilient group of people who have made significant contributions to the United States and the world. 

That beauty brings to mind a poem by Nayyirah Waheed that I recently shared with my students as we began our study of black history, reclamation and resistance. You might use it with your students too:

if we 



people of color 


burn the world down.

for what 


have experienced.

are experiencing.


we don't. 


—how stunningly beautiful that our sacred respect for the earth. for life. is deeper than our rage

Pitts teaches high school English in Harlem, New York. She is also a graduate student at Teachers College of Columbia University.

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