Black History Month 2021 might be one of the most consequential of its celebrations in its nearly century-long history. After an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a summer full of racial violence and protest, and a year marked by anti-Black racism, we have no excuse not to teach Black history.
White teachers must teach Black history. Not because we do it particularly well, but because nationally, we make up roughly 80 percent of the public K-12 workforce and we cannot rely on our colleagues of color to do this work for us.
Teaching Black history is not merely a consideration of pedagogy. To engage in liberatory and humanizing Black history instruction, we must consider our own epistemological (knowledge), ontological (beliefs), and methodological (practical) understandings. In our experience, effectively teaching Black history requires white teachers like us to decenter our whiteness, address our fears, and develop a community of collaborators who will do this work alongside us.
As LaGarrett J. King recently wrote in Education Week, we must teach through Black history, not only about it. The goal is to understand the world through the experiences of Black folks, not to simply teach about topics, individuals, or movements associated with the Black experience.
While it is essential for teachers to tap into other educators’ experiences and learn from each other’s mistakes, a Black historical consciousness is more than a critical pedagogy; it includes a range of pedagogies including multiculturalism, ethnic studies, and cultural relevance and responsiveness. We can use this Black historical consciousness to analyze and refine our teaching of Black history, not just in February but across the whole school year.
For white teachers to effectively engage students in learning Black history, we must question everything about the way we teach and learn in schools.Teachers should think critically about teaching materials and textbooks that both privilege Eurocentric content knowledge and Western ways of knowing more broadly.
As a trio of white teachers who have taught kindergartners and graduate students, we have wrestled with how to embody these objectives. We’ve learned from leaders in Black intellectual thought and developed a short list of recommendations and warnings for other white teachers—and all teachers socialized in a system that privileges white-centric ways of knowing. We recognize that this list is not definitive and we know that we are still learning.
In 2018, the then-8-year-old Chicago elementary student King Johnson addressed a journal assignment to his teacher after a particularly troubling Columbus Day lesson, asking, “My question for the day is how can white people teach Black history?” It’s a good question and one we hope to answer in part here:
1. Be self-reflective. Identify who you are and where you are, with attention to the privileges and blind spots. Consider your knowledge within the current and past social and political contexts. The work of self-reflection should not be a one-off, but rather, a daily process.
2. Learn both the content and context. There is a wealth of resources available for teachers, including online, in text, film, podcasts, and even children’s book adaptations. Use online databases and Black history materials to better leverage a professional learning community. Further engage your students in learning Black history, inviting their knowledge, experiences, and lives into the conversation. That doesn’t mean relying on any of your students to teach you but instead developing instruction that includes their experiences and interests. Be open to learning and accept the multiple ways that students engage with history at home and in the community. Knowing the context is as important as knowing the content.
3. Include and center Black perspectives. Be critical of the materials you are using. Are they offering a comprehensive representation of the Black figures you’ve presented, or are you reinforcing Eurocentric narratives? Avoid superficial representations of heroes and heroines. Teach through Black joy, brilliance, resistance, and agency.
4. Decenter not only Eurocentric ideals but also Western ways of knowing. Critically reassessing Eurocentric narratives of Black history will be uncomfortable. Accept that you will make mistakes. Learn to apologize and grow from them. Even the most self-proclaimed racially or socially conscious white teacher or “woke” ally will mess up.
5. Be persistent and continue to try. Listen openly and take notes when others (especially your students or families) offer you suggestions and critique. Reflect and evolve. Find your allies to share your experiences, create collaborations and community, and sustain your soul.
6. Hold the tension between yourself and “the work.” Your allegiance is to your students. Teaching this subject as a white person is filled with a variety of tensions that are vital that you grapple with. This work is more than just teaching students—it’s about your growth, too. Interrupt your colleagues’ representations of Black history that do not humanize and seek to liberate. Shout down the terrible, dehumanizing, and hateful representations of Black history and Black History Month. It will be uncomfortable, but you can do it. Whatever you experience while learning about the difficult histories of Black Americans (or recognizing your own blind spots) is slight in comparison to the harm Black Americans have faced throughout U.S. history.
Teaching Black history through liberatory and humanizing means is a long-term, difficult goal, but with time and commitment, white teachers can and must achieve it. To paraphrase famed educator Carter G. Woodson, our focus should not be on Black history but rather Black people in history. Only then can we teach what Woodson describes as a “history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”