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New Ways to Have Old Conversations: Teaching Black History

By William Anderson — February 21, 2017 5 min read
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It’s that time of year again, Black History Month, when our nation celebrates the achievements and contributions of black people throughout history. Originally known as Negro History Week, this tradition was started by Carter G. Woodson in 1926. A black historian and writer, Woodson penned his most famous piece, The Mis-Education of the Negro, to highlight how education systematically conditioned black students to be more compliant and dependent. “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about controlling his actions,” Woodson wrote, illustrating the detrimental impact of this “mis-education” of black people in America. In 1976, Negro History Week was elevated to Black History Month, and the tradition was celebrated across our nation.

When I was in school, Black History Month would mean a couple of things for our class:

1. We would watch Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech and discuss what it meant to us.

2. Morning announcements would include brief bios of black people (mostly men) who had made an “acceptable” difference in the eyes of society.

From elementary through high school, this was how we celebrated Black History Month. As a black male, I thought these “celebrations” of black history seemed out of place and irrelevant. When yet another teacher would start playing “I Have a Dream,” I remember thinking, “Again?!” Then I would check out, staring mindlessly at the black-and-white footage. If this was my experience as a black person, I can only imagine the inner responses of my white classmates.

In his book, Woodson 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.” Negro History Week was created to combat this unfortunate truth. It’s disheartening to see students doze off during recycled, uninspiring lesson plans that trot out the same five or six black historical figures year after year.

It is time for us to start finding new ways to have old conversations. The internet has provided nearly limitless resources and ideas for new ways to celebrate Black History Month. Hopefully, the following lesson plans can offer some insight into how we as educators can challenge our students to engage with black history. These examples are based on common-core state standards and can be taught at the middle or high school levels, or modified for elementary students.

1. An Analysis of Language

Essential Question: Discuss the meanings of the words “black” and “white” and how the definitions, synonyms, and associations of these words impact how we view the people we assign those colors to.

• How does the media use these words to express messages?
• How could we change this language to better represent people and their characteristics?

Source Materials:
• Have students look up the definitions of “black” and “white” in the dictionary and find synonyms for these words in the thesaurus. Then ask students to discuss the implications of the meanings of these words in their lives.
• Show the video “I Am NOT Black, You Are NOT White” and ask students to evaluate the role of labels in our society.
• Ask students to read the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou and analyze how she combats negative ideas that are associated with being black.

Relevant Common-Core Standards:

2. Bringing History to the Present

Essential Question: Predict how historical black figures would respond to current issues in our country, and evaluate how past civil rights activists would be viewed in today’s society.
• What would Malcolm X’s stance be on today’s Black Lives Matter movement?
• Is Assata Shakur a civil rights hero, or does she deserve to be on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List, which she was added to in 2013?

Source Materials:
• Use Malcolm X’s speech, “Message to the Grass Roots,” and the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement to compare and contrast ideologies.
• Have students read primary and secondary sources about Assata Shakur and come to a text-based decision on how she should be remembered. Consider using the Assata Shakur website, and these articles from The Washington Post and The Guardian.

Relevant Common-Core Standards:

3. Innovation in Science and Math

Essential Question: Examine how technological innovations in math and science are being used (or could be used) to solve problems within black communities.

• How does the health (physical and mental) of black communities compare to the health of other ethnic communities?
• How have community gardens impacted black communities?

Source Materials:
• Ask students to use statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make evidence-based conclusions about the health and wellness of black communities compared to other ethnic communities.
• Show artist and gardener Ron Finley’s TEDtalk, “A Guerilla Gardener in South Central LA” and ask students to consider what changes gardens could bring to their communities.

Relevant Common-Core Standards:

These examples can be used as springboards for a variety of lessons that are supported by standards. My hope is that these lessons will push students to discover relevant connections between black history and present-day issues—and to see their own stories and experiences reflected in Black History Month, regardless of their ethnic background.

This February marks 91 years of celebrating Black History Month—an impressive legacy—but when disingenuous tokenism becomes the norm for teaching black history, the tradition begins to do more harm than good. When our instruction falls short, students (and ultimately, society) remain ignorant. Look no further than the U.S. Department of Education’s misspelling of W.E.B Du Bois’s name in a tweet earlier this month, or President Donald Trump’s recent remarks that seemed to imply that Frederick Douglass is still alive. If we do not engage in relevant, meaningful, and thought-provoking work to celebrate Black History Month, then we may find ourselves in a society where even the nation’s top leaders are blind to the enormous contributions and sacrifices black citizens have made to serve—and better—this country.

As teachers, we must dedicate ourselves to ending the “mis-education” of all our students, in particular our most marginalized and vulnerable. As Woodson wrote in his book, “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.”

Let’s engage our students in celebrations of black history that not only inspire them to think about and appreciate the contributions and sacrifices of black people, but also help them to understand that black history is American history—and it has a place in the hearts and minds of all our people not only in February, but every month of the year.

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