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Black History Month: Teaching the Complete History

Go beyond trauma and struggle to examine the liberation, civic engagement, creativity and intersecting identities of Black people during Black History Month.
Illustration by Shannon Anderson

Last year, Teaching Tolerance rolled out a series of articles challenging teachers to go beyond overused and whitewashed historical narratives when observing Black History Month. This year, we’re expanding that call by recommending that teachers widen their exploration of Black lives while also providing historical context so students will make meaningful connections to current issues. 

It’s not uncommon for educators to focus on slavery, segregation and other forms of oppression during Black History Month. 

But only teaching a Black history steeped in trauma and struggle provides a very narrow view of Blackness and perpetuates the false notion of Black people’s inferiority. This limited teaching of history can actually be violent. 

Stephanie P. Jones, founder of Mapping Racial Trauma in Schools and an assistant professor of education at Grinnell College, examines the severity of such approaches in “Ending Curriculum Violence.” 

Jones’ research shows that, too often, “the transatlantic slave trade and its resulting horror within the American slavery system are essentialized as all Black history itself.” 

She found that the hard histories of slavery, the civil rights movement and other traumatic events in Black history are frequently mistaught or introduced with little context. Curriculum violence occurs when, as too often happens, educators ask students to act out this history or empathize with enslavers’ and other oppressors’ perspectives.

As a result, students come away with a warped understanding of how racial inequity manifests today. And repeated instances of curriculum violence contribute to a larger traumatic experience at school—experiences that can affect Black students’ mental health.  

This doesn’t mean you should skip teaching hard histories for fear of inflicting curriculum violence. Instead, you can take care to teach the truth and avoid harm in the process. Jones’ article offers guidance on how to accomplish that. One way to start right away is to tell the whole story—not just a small part—of Black history. A first step is to commit to decentering racial trauma during Black History Month. 

Over the next four weeks, TT will share some of our favorite resources focusing on aspects of Black history and culture that aren’t centered on violence, trauma and struggle. We hope you’ll use them to help your students recognize the many ways in which Black people have contributed to, inspired and created American culture while also leading the way in advocating for civic participation, inclusion and equitable spaces. 

Teach the History of Liberation Movements

The fight for Black liberation has always been an integral part of U.S. history, but too often we don’t explore that narrative. Black liberation in the United States is much more than a fight to defeat slavery or Jim Crow. It’s also exemplified in efforts to reject anti-Blackness: the refusal of Black people’s humanity, dignity, agency and voice. People perpetuate anti-Blackness in the degradation of Black aesthetics, denial of Black people’s grievances and pain, and the erasure or discrediting of Black culture. 

There are numerous ways to tell the story of Black liberation movements. In addition to revolts by enslaved people in the U.S. and beyond, educators can learn and teach more about the everyday and revolutionary ways in which enslaved people fought for liberation. You can start with the episode “Resistance Means More Than Rebellion” on the Teaching Hard History: American Slavery podcast. And students can watch historian Tera Hunter describe the life and escape of Henry “Box” Brown here.

You can also work with students to examine other efforts and movements in which Black people resisted subjugation. These efforts include the work of the Black Panther Party and the Black Power and “Black Is Beautiful” movements. Students can learn more about Black queer liberation and womanism movements, which provided a template for activism today, such as Black Lives Matter

Honor Black Civic Engagement 

The civil rights movement is perhaps the example of Black activism that is most commonly taught in schools. Students should see that advocacy for Black civic engagement—although often attributed to individual figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—was a collective effort that required the sacrifices of everyday people. For example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful because Black communities united and pooled resources for a common cause and attacked segregated busing from multiple angles. This campaign required information sharing, volunteering and political engagement. 

From the fierce activism and organizing of Ida B. Wells to the creation of the NAACP, Black people and organizations have a long history of uplifting their communities through civic engagement.  

This Black History Month, educators can introduce students to those who aren’t always highlighted, such as Francis Watkins Harper, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker. Show students how their intersectional identities both helped and hindered their causes. 

Recognize Intersectional Black Identity

Students must understand that, like other marginalized groups, Black people have identities that intersect, creating complex lived experiences and compounding the effects of oppressive systems. 

Scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989 to study the social, economic and political ways in which identity-based systems of oppression and privilege connect, overlap and influence one another. 

But recognizing intersectionality doesn’t mean educators have to focus only on oppression when acknowledging intersecting identities. Show students that the overlapping of identities helps inspire and influence culture, activism and the consciousness of our society. Intersecting identities lend empathy and an appreciation for all human experiences, as shown in the activism of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou.  

To start, some resources you can share with your students might be those that amplify the perspectives of the Black LGBTQ community, Afro-Latinx people and Black Muslims

Celebrating Black Literature

Because literature is so central to the ways in which children learn about the world, Black History Month is a great time to recommit yourself to studying and teaching works by Black authors who can offer authentic depictions of what it means to be Black in the U.S. and beyond—as opposed to canonical texts that either ignore these perspectives altogether or tell them from the outside looking in. Works by authors like Ralph Ellison, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor can provide more accurate pictures of Black life and perspectives, even in the science fiction worlds of Butler’s work.

Students can also delve into the biographies of authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni to explore how their activism influenced their work and vice versa. 

This exploration doesn’t have to be limited to older literature. Examine the works of contemporary writers such as Elizabeth Acevedo’s “Hair,” which delves into the politics of Black hair. Eve Ewing’s “Electric Arches” provides a magical look into Black girlhood while Ta-Nehisi Coates’ body of work—from essays to graphic novels—offers a Black male perspective on topics such as history, politics and fatherhood.

This exploration also shouldn’t be limited to U.S.-born writers. Help students connect the common threads among Black people across the globe. The works of writers such as Chinua Achebe, Jamaica Kincaid and Wayétu Moore center Black lives throughout the African diaspora in historical narratives. 

There is plenty of history to uncover. Studying these four areas of Black life—liberation, civic engagement, intersectional identities and Black literature—can help move classroom discussions past trauma toward enlightenment and empowerment. This doesn’t suggest that the realities of racism and racialized violence aren’t worthy of discussion. However, students deserve to learn more accurate, balanced and humanizing accounts of Black experiences.

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