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Social Studies Opinion

The Five Questions for Building Your Black History Program

By LaGarrett J. King — January 31, 2023 6 min read
Illustration of black faces looking out from behind vibrant blooming flowers.
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Developing a Black history program is important work educators should not do in haste. I use “program” instead of “course” to highlight the importance of dedicated Black history instruction throughout the K-12 experience.

Here are a few questions and steps that schools and school districts should consider when building effective Black history programs:

1. Who will go on this journey with you? As school and district leaders begin to think about building Black history programs, careful consideration will have to go into selecting a planning committee. Leaders need to work collaboratively. Your committee should be composed of diverse people who all support the mission of building strong Black history programs.

A good committee should range from nine to 13 people. I suggest that the committee includes representatives from the central office, at least one school-based administrator, teachers from multiple schools and different grade levels, parents, community members, students, and outside nonvoting consultants, preferably a professional historian and Black history educator versed in instructional approaches.

After establishing the committee, select a chair, secretary, and historian. The planning committee should be transparent in its process, including holding community meetings, sharing progress with the school board, and writing notes about its process. Diversity initiatives in education are often cyclical, so this documentation is about chronicling a history for reflection and documentation for future generations. In some cases, the identities of the planning committees may need to be withheld for safety reasons, but the process ideally should be public.

2. What is the purpose of the committee and the Black history programs? After setting up the planning committee, everyone needs to understand its mission. I suggest the committee craft a mission statement and purpose that are revisited throughout the process. The purpose statement should explicitly state the why, who, when, and the how of the program development.

There are several elements that the committee will have to define. The most important one is defining Black history. This definition will be the foundation of how the program will be built. I have found that many educators cannot define what history is; therefore, this is an important step.

I define Black history as the experiences of people of African descent and their perspectives on those experiences. Black history is developed from Black voices and experiences. This definition has implications for how schools and school districts build curricula. If constructed properly, the Black history curricula and associated pedagogy will look different from how the traditional curriculum is developed.

In other words, Black history has different historical entry points and timelines, historical figures and events, and even perspectives about the world.

Black history begins with ancient Africa, not Western enslavement. Black history includes the material effects of politics—such as Brown v. Board of Education, Reaganomics, or the War on Drugs—on Black communities. It must showcase Black joy and agency, as well as acknowledge the blacklash—including psychological and physical violence—from white people.

3. What is the current state of your history programs? A curriculum audit is always a good step to determine a needs assessment. School districts should examine what Black history courses or associated courses (such as African American studies or Africana studies) are already offered, how you can improve the courses, and who teaches the courses.

If the district has no existing Black history courses, examine the current history offerings. Ask what current courses are available: What is taught, by whom, and with what resources.

Surveys can also be distributed. Asking students, teachers, administrators, and community members about their ideas about Black history can provide some valuable information. In school districts I have worked with, survey respondents have suggested improvements to Black history programs, such as emphasizing local Black history, implementing a unit that focuses on institutional and systemic racism rather than just individual, and adding more field trips and project- and problem-based learning assessments.

Many school districts have found my Black history framework useful as a guide to check against their current course offerings.

4. Who should teach the subject? The teacher is the most important entity in building a strong Black history program. Studies have noted that a great teacher can improve an average curriculum. Plus, the teacher is the ambassador for how the course is viewed by students, parents, and the community, especially the first time a course is offered.

Many people automatically think of the teacher’s race as a qualification, with a Black teacher as the most desired. But just because a teacher is Black does not mean they know how or can teach Black history. Yes, I understand that the teacher’s race has implications for how the course is received, especially in schools and districts lacking teacher diversity. Optics do matter in many places.

However, what we should be looking for are certain dispositions, including content knowledge; racial pedagogical knowledge; cultural responsiveness, sensitivity, and empathy; and a general aptitude for student-centered teaching that challenges students both academically and in their critical thinking. I suggest an interview protocol that includes a teaching demonstration and interview questions that focus on these dispositions.

Additionally, schools and school districts should hire and retain more than one teacher who can teach the course. These qualified teachers should be in constant communication with each other and have access to strategic professional-development opportunities that enhance the curriculum and pedagogy of the courses.

5. What should the subject entail, and how should we teach it? I challenge the planning committees to think outside the box when developing the curriculum. It is a mistake to take the traditional history narrative, place Black faces there, and expect to teach Black history effectively. In other words, don’t teach about Black history, teach through it.

If we are serious about teaching through Black history, the committee needs to understand that what is historically significant to white people is not necessarily historically significant to Black people. Black history has its own entry points, people, events, and ways of experiencing history.

Black history should not begin with colonization; it should explore the thousands of years of African history before European contact.

This also means questioning who we consider historically important. For example, why is Frederick Douglass favored over fellow abolitionists Martin Delany or Henry Highland Garnett? Why do we call Black soldiers during the Revolutionary Wwar Black loyalists or patriots? Were they loyal to the crown, the colonists, or themselves? Why do we only teach about Juneteenth and not the several other independence days for different Black communities throughout the nation?

The planning committee needs to suspend the current Eurocentric thinking that hinders our vision. Our thinking must be geared toward the Black historical perspectives.

Just as the curriculum should look different, the instructional practices and assessments should be implemented differently as well. These courses should encourage problem- and project-based learning, use different multimedia and technology, and allow students to use the past to improve the present and rethink the future.

Explore the Collection

We are not a historically mature society until we acknowledge that everyone’s history matters. In this special collection, a slate of Black history researchers and educators help lead us down that road to historical maturity and LaGarrett J. King offers practical resources for improving Black history instruction.

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