Where is the joy in teaching Black history? What did you learn about Black history in school when you were growing up? No, really, think about it. What did you remember? Slavery? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? Rosa Parks? Don’t worry if you can’t recall much more than that. That’s kind of my point.
The typical American history course discusses Black people in this way: They were enslaved. Lincoln freed them. Some bad people took away their rights. Martin had a dream, and Black people got their rights. Yay, no more racism!
Yes, many students encounter occasional heroes like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, or Rosa Parks, but most of Black history (if taught at all) is a chronology of pain and suffering. I should know; I’ve taught U.S. history in both public and private schools since 2008.
I recently saw a CNN article that described “trauma-free Blackness,” and I had to pause. I don’t remember ever hearing happy stories about Black people in school. Let me be clear: Life was hard for Black people. However, with a trauma- and struggle-filled narrative, the Black experience is one-dimensional and defined by pain. While there is a lot of pain, that’s only one part of the story. It is imperative for children to know that Black people experienced joy at every point in history.
Black joy and Black love are central themes for understanding Black history. Simply put, without a focus on Black joy, Black history is incomplete. When we teach oppression and struggle without also teaching the joy of resistance, for instance, we miss the mark.
Joy is a part of the human experience. When we separate Black people’s struggles from their humanity, we see them as less than human. When we see them as less than human, it becomes easier to justify continued racial disparities in society.
Now that we know we need to incorporate Black joy, how do teachers accomplish this task? Black joy isn’t a chapter in most textbooks. Here are a few suggestions based on my personal experiences teaching American history and Black history to high schoolers.
1. Analyze existing curriculum. Look at your standards and curriculum. As LaGarrett J. King, the director of the Carter Center for K-12 Black History Education (and guest editor of this opinion series), often asks: Are you teaching about Black history or through Black history? Do the Black figures you teach have agency? Does your curriculum include stories of resistance? It should. Do you teach about the Great Migration? Do you teach about the Black towns and Black Wall Streets that emerged after the Civil War? (That’s right, Tulsa, Okla., wasn’t the only one.) What about the Black people that served in every armed conflict in U.S. history?
Look at the sources you’re using. Who wrote them? What stories do they tell? Whose perspectives do they represent? Look at your next lesson, unit, or topic. Examine areas where you can incorporate Black joy. If you’re teaching a subject and are bound to a test, you may feel you don’t have time for anything extra. I know that feeling well, but Black joy isn’t extra; it’s part of the story.
2. Fill in the gaps. Read books and articles about Black history. Look for those that center the Black experience. One suggestion is A Black Women’s History of the United States by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross. Another amazing book is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. There are plenty of professional-development opportunities, all around the country (many virtual this year). The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History both have summer workshops and professional learning options throughout the year. They cover a wide range of topics but always have several on Black history topics. I took a Gilder Lehrman workshop on Frederick Douglass with noted scholar David Blight. I took an NEH workshop called Crafting Freedom: Black Artisans, Entrepreneurs and Abolitionists of the Antebellum Upper South. I’ve also presented at the Carter Center for the Teaching of Black History conference, which is another amazing learning opportunity focused on this topic.
3. Ask for help. There are people that study and write about these topics on a regular basis. Many are more than willing to support teachers. Many museums have education professionals on staff. They work with schools to translate their materials for a broader audience. When I reached out to the African American Museum in Dallas, the museum director sent me an email full of slideshows, annotated bibliography, and an offer to visit my class. Reach out to professors at nearby colleges. Use your social-media networks. I am connected to so many teachers and organizations on Twitter and Instagram.
4. Don’t stop with slavery. There’s no way to tell the story of American history without significant attention to teaching about slavery. That being said, what stories are you telling about slavery? Are you teaching the varied forms of resistance in which enslaved persons engaged on a daily basis? Are you exploring cultural traditions and how many foods, songs, and practices were passed down from this era? What about the music? Are you talking about the enslaved persons that fought for freedom in courts and won? (Hello, Mum Bett, whose successful 1781 court case effectively ended slavery in Massachusetts.)
Look at the stories you’re telling. Is there any happiness or joy? Do you teach about the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke, and the New Negro? What about Marcus Garvey? Use various forms of art, poetry, literature, autobiographies, biographies to add more complexity to the stories you’re telling about Black people. We are more than the sum total of our pain. We cannot understand history without context. Black joy offers a helpful frame though which to approach this topic.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Don’t Ignore the Joy in Black History