Black History Month has come to an end, but our study of history, particularly black history, should not lapse. The sad reality is that if we were to issue a quiz about black history to a room full of adults, a majority of those adults would fail, including men and women of color.
That’s a shame. It is important for all young people to develop a better understanding of black history, because it will help them grow into adults who make decisions with a better understanding of the history and contributions of African-Americans.
But the importance of black history goes even further than that. We often hear about the importance of teaching math and science, but history helps in a different way, by allowing us to reach a larger swath of our potential workforce. Many young men of color are desperate for an example to follow. The lessons of Black History Month help us capture the minds of young black boys and show them that they, too, could be lawyers or senators, doctors or inventors.
I believe that if a young man of color never meets an investment banker or surgeon who looks like him, he’ll never want to be one, too. Each year, February provides us with an opportunity to remind students of color of the significance of their history, but this shouldn’t end on March 1.
I know this lesson is critical because it means so much to the nearly 3,000 young male students I try to reach each day. I was the founding principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men. It is the first in what has become a network of six all-boys public schools in the greater New York City area trying to close the achievement gap among disadvantaged boys of color. Now, as the president and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation, I run the organization that raises funds to support the extended-day program and Saturday hours, college visits, extracurricular activities, a mentorship program, professional education for our teachers, and a host of other activities geared to giving students what they may be missing at home.
We’re just one network of schools trying to close the gap for disadvantaged boys, but in every school across this country it is critical to remind these boys whose shoulders they stand on, how men and women from similar backgrounds sacrificed for our country and contributed to society. We should be doing this regularly, not just in February.
We need to instill in our young people of color that the context of their history matters. Despite unparalleled adversity, pioneers like Harriet Tubman, Crispus Attucks, and Medgar Evers sacrificed for the good of their people and their nation.
To me, it’s a lot harder for a child to pick up a gun or join a gang when he or she knows a woman like Harriet Tubman escaped slavery but also felt a duty to risk her life and newly earned freedom to free those in chains.
All races should know what black men and women have achieved despite difficult circumstances.
Children of color can feel alienated by the history of their nation because they read history books full of white leaders, explorers, and generals. But they need to realize that the very birth of this country began with the ultimate sacrifice of Crispus Attucks, an African-American. And that Medgar Evers had such a desire to learn and better himself that he stood bravely in the heart of the South as a test case to those African-Americans who desired an advanced education.
When children learn about that type of strength and integrity, they can’t help but feel a responsibility to those whose shoulders they stand on. They build on those examples as they move forward.
That’s why our schools have leaders of color posted throughout the halls. We hang pictures of great men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, but we also point to the example of their African-American teachers and guidance counselors who care enough to go far beyond what’s expected in the classroom to help them out. You can find a photo of these standout educators on our walls, too. We bring in speakers of color who have come from similar circumstances as our students and have achieved success in their given careers to talk to our students. Unfortunately, the Eagle Academy experience is not the norm.
As a young man of color gains a deeper understanding of who he is, where he comes from, and what he is capable of as an individual, he gains confidence and strength. I know that type of lesson gives our students, even in the direst of circumstances, the resolve to succeed.
I see it every day in our classrooms. As young Eagle students learn about their history and meet achievers of color, they begin to move differently. When these students see it, experience it, and feel it, they can achieve it. Ultimately, they leave our school as better scholars but also as confident and responsible young men.
This is why Black History Month is a critically important time of year. The remembrance and celebration of the achievements of African-Americans should be considered daily. This allows all our children and their families a chance to stop, reflect, and be inspired by the contributions of their ancestors.
We need to build up our young people of color while also working to foster a better understanding of African-American history among other populations, too. All races should know what black men and women have achieved despite difficult circumstances.
So, as we raise the test scores of our students in math and science, let us not forget to raise the consciousness of everyone through the study of history. Black History Month has passed, but it should still remind us to teach all of our students about the people who came before them, what they did to make the world better, and what they gave up to give us the opportunities we have today.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as Black History Is Not Just About February