What do you remember learning about black history in school? Maybe a lesson or two on slavery, listening to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, or hearing about Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man?
While these are important lessons and figures for the African American community, let’s think of them as more of a highlight reel — or, rather, an oversimplification of a very complex history. It’s hard enough to condense 400-plus years of history into 12 months, but into one month? Impossible.
In the midst of yet another Black History Month, I’m reminded of the deep-seated tendency of keeping black history lessons to February.
The fact that my ancestors’ history — our country’s history — is crammed into the shortest month of the year is disgraceful. The same goes for Women’s History Month, Native American Heritage Month and so forth. These month-long celebrations demonstrate that our country hasn’t progressed as much as we thought.
We shouldn’t wait for a designated month to teach our nation’s youth about the individuals who worked to build and move this country. We, as educators, parents and community members have an obligation to recognize powerful African American figures like mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson in everyday conversations — because these aren’t strictly black heroes, they’re American heroes. Without Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson, America might not have won the space race. But as Andre Perry points out in his piece on the issue in The Root: “Black contributions to society are not being recognized in the pantheon of American history.”
That’s why at Loyola, I challenge my future teachers to find organic ways to integrate these figures into their lesson plans, rightfully discussed among their white counterparts. And in doing that, I help them understand that they’re actually honoring their students because they’re giving them the complete story. That doesn’t mean we exclude the white person’s point of view — the opposite, really. It means we also take into account the other perspectives.
In every significant historical event, there are multiple voices. So why do we teach from one point of view? Making history more inclusive won’t be simple. The fact is, it requires our entire nation to acknowledge that, for generations, we’ve been taught an incomplete narrative.
But by taking small steps and sharing stories about strong, smart black and brown men and women in history, it helps students better visualize a world in which people from historically marginalized communities achieving amazing feats is the norm.
In addition to the infrequency of black history lessons, I also find fault with how these lessons are taught. I always tell my teachers that you cannot start with slavery. You must first teach students about powerful black activists, musicians, scientists and doctors. That way they see the humanity that was crushed through countless years of mistreatment, abuse and forced labor.
Not to mention, most lessons on slavery are abridged. In many cases, this occurs because it’s a difficult subject to approach, especially for white educators. It requires uncomfortable conversations about racism and a deep understanding of our country’s history. Other times, it happens because our teachers’ textbooks and curriculum are inadequate. The texts don’t do a great job of explaining the realities of slavery or connecting the issue to contemporary American life.
According to a study conducted by the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance Project, only 8 percent of high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Two-thirds are unaware that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery.
There’s clearly much work to be done when it comes to educating our K-12 youth on slavery, but we must first accept that historically accurate lessons on slavery are essential if we want to come to terms with our nation’s racial divide.
So here’s the part where I turn the challenge to you. Soon it will be March. Will you continue educating your children and your students about the contributions and challenges of African Americans? Like Martin Luther King Jr., I, too, have a dream: a dream that we’ll no longer relegate the rich, vibrant and often times cruel history of African Americans to one month. Because black history isn’t just black history, it’s American history.
Adell Cothorne is a clinical instructor and professional development schools coordinator at the Loyola University Maryland School of Education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.