Mining the Jewel of Black History Month

In my 11 years as a social studies teacher, more than 95 percent of my middle and high school students were African American. It’s been my privilege. Hundreds of students came to me—a white woman—to learn history. I learned so many things that, had I taught different students or a different subject, I might not have.

Many of those lessons were learned during February, and much of what I now know about the relationship of race and culture to curriculum and pedagogy stemmed from my fear of doing Black History month the “wrong way.” 

Fatimah Hutchings and Dionte Brown, former students of mine, taught me two ways Black History Month should not be handled. The first was limiting the study and celebration of black history to a few special events or projects in February. The second was, in my well-intended effort to steer clear of the “heroes and holidays” approach, missing February’s special opportunity to dwell with my students in the richness of black culture and history. 

When I adorned my classroom with cut outs of Dr. King and Maya Angelou surrounded by a kente cloth border, entered students into a local essay contest about the meaning of black history, and taught a week-long unit on black inventors, Fatimah zinged me. “What’s all this black stuff? You’re only teaching us this because it’s February and you don’t want anyone to think you’re racist,” she said.  

The next year I dropped the superficial kente cloth decorations. Instead, I integrated back history into my world history curriculum, introducing the Red Summer of 1919 into our unit on WWI, and the women of Gees Bend (Ala.) into our lessons about the Great Depression. During our unit on imperialism in Africa, my students were drawn to three sentences in our textbook about Emperor Menelik II, who successfully defended his Ethiopia against European domination. Our understanding of black history evolved to include the diaspora. We wrote research papers on African resistance movements. We studied the Haitian Revolution. We were mesmerized.

Then in February, we began to study the Rise of European Fascism. That’s when I learned the Dionte lesson. “Why are we learning about Stalin and Hitler and all these dead white guys during Black History Month?” he wanted to know.

I explained the risks of reducing or marginalizing black history to the span of one month and the scope of one class. I told him that while leaders and their biographies could inspire us, the real study of history involved looking at trends and tensions across time and place rather than the de-contextualized trivia and quotes that black history month looks like in many classrooms. And finally, I pointed to various learning artifacts around the room, “Look how much we’ve learned about black people and black history this year,” I said. “We didn’t have to wait for February!”

Well guess what folks? My 10th-graders were not interested in my views on pedagogy. They wanted to get their Carter G. Woodson on! And I let them down. 

I realized that Fatimah and Dionte were both right. Filing black history away for February was clearly inauthentic and insulting, but minimizing the month was arrogant.

In my fourth year, I assembled a black history month committee of students and staff (all staff, not just teachers). We moved black history month out of the social studies classroom and into the school community. We had fun and we empowered our students and let their vision guide us.  

Students watched movies and attended workshops on topics related to black history and culture. Teachers, parents and support staff led film discussions and hosted workshops on a range of topics including African Americans in sports and the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) experience.

We held a student panel discussion about the effects of gentrification on our city. The art department hosted a black art poster contest. Kids formed performance teams to reenact their chosen moment in black history. And, yes, it all culminated with a grand assembly where the choir sang the Black National Anthem and James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” pumped through the speakers. Everyone learned something new. It was beautiful. 

Each year, I continued to partner and plan with students, colleagues, parents and community members to celebrate Black History Month. I also continued to reflect on how I could best teach my students about the history and experiences of African Americans across the curriculum and all year long.

My February social studies lessons focused on the history of Black History Month. We studied the “father of Black History,” Carter G. Woodson and his connection to our city, Washington, D.C. We struggled through close readings of Woodson’s 1933 “The Miseducation of the Negro” which, among other things, provides a defense of why he started Negro History Week in 1926.  He wrote, “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies.”  

Black History Month is part of an educational lineage and tradition that has evolved into the work of anti-bias, anti-racist, multicultural, culturally responsive and social justice educators. Before you write it off as multiculturalism 101, consider what you can learn about the relationship of race and culture to curriculum and pedagogy this February.

Chiariello is a Teaching and Learning Specialist with Teaching Tolerance.


Until our country, our

Submitted by MelissaJT on 5 February 2014 - 1:10pm.

Until our country, our textbooks, and our schools begin to value the history of the people that have made us who we are in the world today, we need ethnic hertitage months. The reality is that most teachers do not include Black History except during February. We all know what happened with they tried to teach Mexican American Studies in Arizona. The rest of the country should all take a hint from Philly and make an a equitable, deep, and critical look Black History- and at the history of all the peoples currently oppressed by our curriculum- a requirement for graduation.

What a powerful statement!

Submitted by Ruth Palmer on 18 September 2013 - 8:05am.

What a powerful statement! Your authenticity brought tears to my eyes! If only all children could have this experience.

Your ability to be flexible

Submitted by Mary Beard on 30 January 2013 - 7:43am.

Your ability to be flexible and adapt curriculum to student needs is inspiring. I love the idea of getting the whole community involved to celebrate culture. The only way we can learn from each other and be proud of our heritage comes from celebrating both our differences and our similaries together!

Emily, Thank you for both

Submitted by Vickey Gibbs on 29 January 2013 - 3:52pm.

Thank you for both listening to and hearing the needs of your students and allowing same to broaden your own understanding of both / and in engaging your students.

To have eleven months of

Submitted by Tobias A. Weissman on 29 January 2013 - 1:33pm.

To have eleven months of teaching "White History" and to assign one month, in this case, February, as Black History month, is to my way of thinking, a racist thing to do. We should stop labeling people, White, Black or Negro, Hispanic or Mexican, Asian or Chinese, and just incorporate all historical persons having to do with United States history as such.

I see your point, but offer this perspective

Submitted by Anonymous on 28 January 2015 - 2:43pm.

Incorporating all historical persons having to do with United States history is certainly ideal. It's also important that our students understand the ways in which labels of race and ethnicity have indeed impacted our country so that they can think critically about and examine the current social issues occurring in today's society with historical context. Labels themselves are not bad, as humans we label things in our brain and organize things to make sense of it all. It's the treatment of people because of those labels that is an issue. Instead of wishing labels were eliminated, which we are long from, what impact would we have if we teach our students why these labels exist, and why it's not bad to have them or personally identify, but explore how they can be problematic for some. The full elimination of labels won't change history or the current issues in our society. Ignoring labels create spaces that silence the voices of communities already marginalized. Full discussions about labels, what they are, and how they impact our society will have a deeper impact.

I strongly agree!

Submitted by rroberts on 7 February 2014 - 7:42pm.

I strongly agree!