Mining the Jewel of Black History Month

Planning for Black History Month can be authentic without falling into the pitfalls of the “heroes and holidays.” Look for ways to involve the entire school community and teach about the history and experiences of African Americans across the curriculum and throughout the year.
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In my 11 years as a social studies teacher, more than 95 percent of my middle and high school students were African American. It’s been my privilege. Hundreds of students came to me—a white woman—to learn history. I learned so many things that, had I taught different students or a different subject, I might not have.

Many of those lessons were learned during February, and much of what I now know about the relationship of race and culture to curriculum and pedagogy stemmed from my fear of doing Black History month the “wrong way.” 

Fatimah Hutchings and Dionte Brown, former students of mine, taught me two ways Black History Month should not be handled. The first was limiting the study and celebration of black history to a few special events or projects in February. The second was, in my well-intended effort to steer clear of the “heroes and holidays” approach, missing February’s special opportunity to dwell with my students in the richness of black culture and history. 

When I adorned my classroom with cut outs of Dr. King and Maya Angelou surrounded by a kente cloth border, entered students into a local essay contest about the meaning of black history, and taught a week-long unit on black inventors, Fatimah zinged me. “What’s all this black stuff? You’re only teaching us this because it’s February and you don’t want anyone to think you’re racist,” she said.  

The next year I dropped the superficial kente cloth decorations. Instead, I integrated black history into my world history curriculum, introducing the Red Summer of 1919 into our unit on WWI, and the women of Gees Bend (Ala.) into our lessons about the Great Depression. During our unit on imperialism in Africa, my students were drawn to three sentences in our textbook about Emperor Menelik II, who successfully defended his Ethiopia against European domination. Our understanding of black history evolved to include the diaspora. We wrote research papers on African resistance movements. We studied the Haitian Revolution. We were mesmerized.

Then in February, we began to study the Rise of European Fascism. That’s when I learned the Dionte lesson. “Why are we learning about Stalin and Hitler and all these dead white guys during Black History Month?” he wanted to know.

Before you write it off as multiculturalism 101, consider what you can learn about the relationship of race and culture to curriculum and pedagogy this February.

I explained the risks of reducing or marginalizing black history to the span of one month and the scope of one class. I told him that while leaders and their biographies could inspire us, the real study of history involved looking at trends and tensions across time and place rather than the de-contextualized trivia and quotes that black history month looks like in many classrooms. And finally, I pointed to various learning artifacts around the room, “Look how much we’ve learned about black people and black history this year,” I said. “We didn’t have to wait for February!”

Well guess what folks? My 10th-graders were not interested in my views on pedagogy. They wanted to get their Carter G. Woodson on! And I let them down. 

I realized that Fatimah and Dionte were both right. Filing black history away for February was clearly inauthentic and insulting, but minimizing the month was arrogant.

In my fourth year, I assembled a black history month committee of students and staff (all staff, not just teachers). We moved black history month out of the social studies classroom and into the school community. We had fun and we empowered our students and let their vision guide us.  

Students watched movies and attended workshops on topics related to black history and culture. Teachers, parents and support staff led film discussions and hosted workshops on a range of topics including African Americans in sports and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) experience.

We held a student panel discussion about the effects of gentrification on our city. The art department hosted a black art poster contest. Kids formed performance teams to reenact their chosen moment in black history. And, yes, it all culminated with a grand assembly where the choir sang the Black National Anthem and James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” pumped through the speakers. Everyone learned something new. It was beautiful. 

Each year, I continued to partner and plan with students, colleagues, parents and community members to celebrate Black History Month. I also continued to reflect on how I could best teach my students about the history and experiences of African Americans across the curriculum and all year long.

My February social studies lessons focused on the history of Black History Month. We studied the “father of Black History,” Carter G. Woodson, and his connection to our city, Washington, D.C. We struggled through close readings of Woodson’s 1933 The Miseducation of the Negro which, among other things, provides a defense of why he started Negro History Week in 1926.  He wrote, “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies.”  

Black History Month is part of an educational lineage and tradition that has evolved into the work of anti-bias, anti-racist, multicultural, culturally responsive and social justice educators. Before you write it off as multiculturalism 101, consider what you can learn about the relationship of race and culture to curriculum and pedagogy this February.

Chiariello is an educational consultant who specializes in culturally responsive standards-based education.