‘Fixing’ Black History Month

By Kate Stoltzfus — March 02, 2016 4 min read
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February’s Black History Month may be over according to the calendar, but the focus on African-American culture shouldn’t stop on March 1.

The celebration draws questions each year about the value of setting aside a separate month to study black history, Melinda D. Anderson of The Atlantic reports. While proponents of Black History Month find it an important way to honor the past, others—from people in the public eye to educators—believe whittling a focus down to one month can limit the perspective to a few major historical players and discourage schools from teaching African-American culture year-round.

In a CNN op-ed, Nayaba Arinde, editor of Amsterdam News (one of the oldest black-owned publications in the country, according to Arinde’s bio on CNN), criticized those who advocate, as actress Stacey Dash did in January, for the elimination of Black History Month altogether. The month is needed, Arinde said, to both honor historical figures and “also take heed of the unknown people, the folk who, in the light or in the dark, do the work to improve the lives of everyone else.” (In an odd turn of events, Dash also made a strange appearance on the Oscars on Sunday night and later wrote about it on her blog, disavowing any semblance of impropriety on the subject.)

Alice Walker weighed in on the Black History Month debate in early February, sharing in a Facebook post that she used to feel it was “the ultimate segregation” to cram black history into only four weeks. She’s had a change of heart. She writes, “However, now I see Black History Month as an opportunity to, in a sense, double down on our efforts to learn who we as Americans actually are, shorn of the myths too many have spun about us.”

All arguments aside, said Aisha Harris of Slate, there are ways to “fix” Black History Month—and one of them is to follow her tips.

To extend the spirit of the month, here are several ideas for incorporating African-American culture—both historical and present day—into the classroom regularly. (This is by no means a comprehensive list.):

  • In a recent Huffington Post article, young writers and artists like Danez Smith and Joshua Aiken shared their influences and the poems that inspire them. Poets Dominique Christina, Ariana Brown, Martin Espada, and Audre Lorde earned mentions.
  • Beacon Press traces race and ethnicity in America through broadsides and books; the Florida Department of Education offers titles—both fiction and nonfiction—organized by grade level; and lesson plans by the National Education Association provide curriculum intended to teach grades K-12 about the history of black music, sports, education, and culture.
  • A PBS initiative called Connect360 offers videos, articles, and digital interactive resources for all grade levels, including features on Tom Bradley, the first black mayor elected in a majority-white city, and the history of black photographers.
  • The New York Times produced an interactive series in February called “Unpublished Black History,” using a trove of archival photographs. It offers students an opportunity to test their ability to identify key sports, political, and cultural icons.

There is also a continual need to push for the creation of stories by and about people of color.

One of the biggest headlines last month featured Marley Dias, an 11-year-old student who met her goal to collect #1000BlackGirlBooks because she wanted to recognize herself in the books she reads. (You might have read about her on EdWeek’s blog Teaching Now, among other media outlets.) Dias, a 6th grader from New Jersey, donated over 1000 books which feature black girls as main characters to the country of Jamaica, where her mother is from. She plans to continue collecting stories with black protagonists for schools in her area—the cities of Newark and West Orange, N.J., and Philadelphia—"where students are experiencing the same frustration,” she told The Guardian.

A selection of the titles Dias collected include Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Firebird by ballerina Misty Copeland, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes.

#1000BlackGirlBooks is another reminder of the publishing industry’s urgent need for diversity: Only 14 percent of books published in 2014 were authored by or about people of color, reports publisher Lee & Low Books, who also recently compiled a study on diversity of employment in the publishing industry. (The take-away: 80 percent of publishing and review journal staff surveyed are white.)

Though 37 percent of the U.S. population are people of color, only 14 percent of children’s books in 2014 had authors or characters of color. Image credit: Lee & Low Books

Some publishers of both books and periodicals are taking extra strides to increase byline diversity. Lightspeed Magazine, a science fiction and fantasy magazine, recently raised more than $50,000 with the help of a Kickstarter campaign to produce an issue solely dedicated to writers of color in science fiction, reports Wired. The genre’s absence of diversity is glaring, with its nearly-exclusive all-white characters and authors. Lightspeed’s special-issue release date is June 1.

To tide readers over, the magazine compiled a list of personal essays featured during the campaign.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.