Lessons from — and for — Black History Month

Renewing an annual tradition by recovering its emphasis on racial justice and empowerment

By Leah Shafer, on February 9, 2017 1:27 PM
Lessons from — and for — Black History Month: Renewing an annual tradition by recovering its emphasis on racial justice and empowerment #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

With racial inequities and divides front and center, how can teachers use this year’s Black History Month in meaningful ways?

They can step away from commemorative projects and celebratory rallies — and instead return to the original purpose of this “educational campaign,” says African American education historian Jarvis Givens. Black History Month was always about racial justice and educational opportunity, he says, and the month can stand today “as an example of what it means for practitioners to be empowered and collectively committed to making education purposeful in the lives of students.”

The Evolution of Black History Month

“Negro History Week” was founded by Carter G. Woodson, a black historian and public school teacher, in February 1926, when little (if any) black history was acknowledged in schools. Says Givens, Woodson saw the week as an opportunity to bring about “an epistemic shift in schools” — for teachers to illuminate the way racial power operated in America, and for students to reimagine the ways knowledge and history were constructed.

Soon, more than 80 percent of black schools were actively celebrating the week, using it as a springboard to refocus their communities on black history and accomplishments, and to appeal to school boards to change curriculum, buy new books, and rethink programming. In 1976, the campaign was expanded and renamed Black History Month.

Black History Month was always meant to put explicit attention on structures of domination — on how racial power operates in America.

But today, many Black History Month activities — discussions on the bravery of Rosa Parks, research projects on famous African Americans, or parties celebrating black culture —  don’t “get to the heart of the critique that was inherent in Negro History Week,” says Givens, a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And too often, he notes, February becomes the only month when students explore these topics.

The commemoration, he argues, was always meant to put “explicit attention on structures of domination that need to be thought about and reflected on when we shape curriculum and decide how we’re training up students to challenge the status quo and to imagine social transformation.”

When black teachers in the 1920s and 1930s made the decision to teach black history, they were challenging dominant power structures that deemed African Americans as unworthy of study or acclaim. These educators were not just teaching students about the history of black life in America, they were showing them what their textbooks had left out, and therefore how whites controlled knowledge in the United States. 

And by putting a spotlight on black history, these teachers were modeling a way for students to challenge those norms. 

By putting a spotlight on black history, these teachers were modeling a way for students to challenge norms about who controls knowledge.  

In its origins, Black History Month is “an example of teachers working not only as just practitioners, but as intellectuals, making a political decision to say, ‘Even though we have to exist in a structure that is hostile to our very existence, we’re finding creative ways to effectively meet the needs of our students and to honor the humanity of our students,’” Givens says.

Renewing Black History Month

That’s an example that teachers can follow today. Alongside the month’s traditional commemorations, teachers can lead discussions on why black history and culture might still be missing from, or incomplete in, curricula.

  • English teachers can focus on black authors who offer diverse narratives of what it means to be an American. Educators should strive to teach writers not usually included in the literary canon, and they can ask students to reflect on which authors they think curriculum should include.
  • History teachers can encourage students to “build their own textbook,” offering supplemental readings with histories of non-white males or differing perspectives of historical events.
  • Teachers can lead discussions on why those perspectives were not included in the official class textbook. Students should be empowered to “always think about the silences in history, and who’s being left out,” Givens says.

Black history, and the lessons of “who’s left out,” should be taught throughout the year. February can then become the month for students to showcase and critique what they have learned. It can be “a recurrent reminder,” Givens says, of the important work to teach marginalized students — and American students more broadly — about race, history, and “how structures of power and domination continue to operate in society.”

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Faculty in this article

Jarvis R. Givens

Jarvis Givens is a Dean’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His research interests include 19th and 20th Century History of African American Education, Education and the African Diaspora, and Race and Urban Schooling.