Where did Iowa Congressman Steve King learn that white supremacy was OK? According to him, in history class.
“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” he asked during a New York Times interview.
King’s comments indicate not only a shocking willingness to express his personal racism but also how far we have to go when it comes to sharing the truths about the founding of the United States and the history of civilizations around the world. It’s a wake-up call that can help us sharpen our focus this February, during which the United States observes Black History Month.
For decades now, the material covered during the month of February has been treated as a sidebar to the American history typically taught in U.S. schools. Posters of respectable black figures hang in hallways and classrooms. Students read historical facts over the intercom during morning announcements, and teachers often have them read essays about a courageous civil rights activist in class. There’s a sort of novelty—these important, intricate milestones and moments that shaped the United States are divided into bite-size pieces, presented over 28 days.
Perhaps there would be no need to observe black history in a designated month if it were taught year-round, alongside other histories as part of a regular curriculum. It wouldn’t be such a novelty if there were a rigorous effort to view it as a central part of the American story.
But we aren’t there yet. And, until we get there, Black History Month should be recognized as a crucial opportunity to broaden students’ knowledge and help them see how the past connects with their lives today—and how it has inspired movements for change.
Valuing Black Lives
Nearly 100 years after historian and author Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week, Americans still do not have a complete understanding of the black experience and its influence on all of our lives.
“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history,” Woodson wrote. But that teaching often falls short.
Black history is American history, and if educators are not equipped with the tools to teach these lessons—or they only prop up the feel-good parts of history—then they do a disservice to all students.
And we know that educators don’t have all they need to teach black history right. Putting Steve King aside, there is a lack of comprehensive instruction, even within the two most commonly covered topics: slavery and the civil rights movement.
Where We're Falling Short
Most students leave high school without knowing much about the enslavement of Africans in British North America and what became the United States, in part because textbooks, standards and curricula often fail to provide in-depth coverage. In 2017, Teaching Tolerance reported that only 8 percent of high school seniors could identify slavery as a central cause of the Civil War.
That lack of deep coverage is evident in textbooks. For example, Texas textbook publishers have been criticized for downplaying the role of slavery in the Civil War. That state’s board of education recently added slavery as the main cause of the war although they still opted to include “contributing factors,” such as states’ rights. The urge to dilute language when referring to hard history can also mislead students. In 2015, for example, a McGraw-Hill social studies textbook notoriously referred to enslaved Africans as “workers.” It’s an introduction to erasure—not seeing the value in a people who, such language implies, were given a choice.
Meanwhile, younger students learn about key figures, such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, before they are introduced to the reasons these figures had to fight for freedom and equality in the first place. The context for their fight—American slavery—isn’t usually taught until later, around fourth or fifth grade.
This pattern holds true in our teaching of the civil rights movement, as well. As we reported in 2011 and 2014, states fail to set high expectations for learning. What students often get instead is a condensed version of factoids, a February full of “holidays and heroes,” when they can explore sanitized experiences of black people without any context.
The overall narrative goes something like this: America overcame slavery, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helped usher in new civil rights laws, and then we elected the first black president. This story gives a false sense of progress, or “post-racialism.” And it has real-life effects: When students are unable to connect the past to the present, it’s harder for them to recognize or fight against the oppressive systems that harm black people to this day.
When Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926, aligning it with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, he knew that this recognition was more than just a time for touting achievements.
He understood that people are more likely to devalue those who are invisible or omitted from history. Woodson hoped that if educators showcased African Americans’ humanity—their intellect, resilience, creativity and dignity—they could inspire black people to embrace their blackness and reject internalized racism. And they could encourage the rest of the world to embrace that humanity as well.
“If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition,” he wrote, “it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”
It’s important to note that Black History Month shouldn’t be only about detailing traumatic experiences. While enslavement and the fight for basic human rights molded our society, it’s only a small part of this country’s saga. Black history doesn’t begin or end with slavery. Africans have always built civilizations and enjoyed diverse cultures of their own.
However, since the continent is rarely explored in classrooms, African lives and experiences—and as a result, their influence on the world—is virtually erased.
Teaching Black History As American History
When learning about the passage of civil rights laws and other victories, students might grapple with the notion of equality versus the reality that our nation is far from equitable. Schools and neighborhoods continue to be segregated, and African Americans still fare worse than their white counterparts regarding wealth, health and rates of incarceration.
Studying black history helps students understand how failure to acknowledge past truths reinforces the status quo—a clinging to structures rooted in oppression.
They’ll learn that policy changes alone won’t amount to true equality. Policies haven’t ended institutional and systemic racism. And they never will until all lives are truly valued.
Writer and scholar Theodore R. Johnson explained it this way:
“It is much more comforting to believe that resolving the race issue is a simple matter of black people assuming more personal responsibility, combined with better policy. But good behavior has never released a people from oppression, not even the Founding Fathers. And without a change in how the nation views its black citizens, even good policy will be used as a cudgel.”
This is why we have to push our teaching beyond chronicles of “famous firsts” or exceptional black people. We need instead to explain why we still have firsts—and how our nation developed the structures that kept black people out of certain spaces or refused them certain opportunities, regardless of their merit or talent.
As we’ll see in our upcoming series about teaching during black history month, educators should also explore resistance movements, African-American cultural influences, diverse black identities and the African diaspora.
Use the tips in Four Black History Month Must-Haves as a springboard for introducing black history in the classroom. This article shows teachers how to let student voices guide lessons, how to educate students about socio-political context, how to highlight the ways other communities of color connect to black history and how to introduce complex descriptions of key figures in history.
Until the influences, experiences and achievements of people of African descent are strategically woven into textbooks, educators must continue to embrace Black History Month robustly. We must show that a group of people whose narratives have been whitewashed, omitted or erased is, in fact, integral to the American story. Educators should ensure that students know African Americans co-authored that story, as they helped build—literally and figuratively—our social, political and economic structures.
Did You Know?
Inspired by black power movements, African-American students on college campuses championed the idea of celebrating black history beyond one week. In 1976, 50 years after Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week, his Association for the Study of African American History (formerly the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History) broadened the celebration into Black History Month.
Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.