February marks the start of Black History Month, a federally recognized celebration of the contributions African Americans have made to this country and a time to reflect on the continued struggle for racial justice.
Black History Month has become one of the most celebrated cultural heritage months on the calendar, said LaGarrett J. King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri.
Schools and businesses offer Black-history-themed meals, lectures, plays and quizzes while major brands roll out clothing, television specials and content for consumers, which can sometimes come off as tone-deaf, particularly when presented without context.
King, founding director of the CARTER Center for K-12 Black History Education, said some educators use Black History Month to “disrupt the official narrative,” but many “teach Black history from a white-centered perspective.”
Many American public schools offer only sanitized versions of slavery and the civil rights movement, along with biographies of a handful of figures who are “palatable to white audiences,” King said. Some offer inaccurate or inappropriate lessons such as slavery reenactments.
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Experts said understanding Black history and learning more about systemic racism is essential as our country faces backlash to civil rights activism such as the George Floyd protests.
Here’s what you need to know about Black History Month and how to celebrate appropriately:
Who started Black History Month?
Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History,” developed Black History Month. Woodson, whose parents were enslaved, was an author, historian and the second African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard University.
He recognized that the American education system offered very little information about the accomplishments of African Americans and founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
In 1926, Woodson proposed a national “Negro History Week,” which was intended to showcase everything students learned about Black history throughout the school year, King said.
It wasn’t until 1976, during the height of the civil rights movement, that President Gerald Ford expanded the week into Black History Month.
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Why is Black History Month in February?
Woodson chose the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, a famed abolitionist who escaped from slavery, and President Abraham Lincoln, who formally abolished slavery.
Feb. 1 is National Freedom Day, the anniversary of the approval of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865. Richard Wright, who was enslaved and became a civil rights advocate and author, lobbied for the celebration of the day, CNN reported, citing the National Constitution Center.
Although the day is not a federal holiday, President Harry Truman recognized National Freedom Day in 1949 and urged citizens to pause to contemplate its significance.
Why is Black History Month important?
Woodson believed it was essential for young African Americans to understand and be proud of their heritage.
“Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history,” he said.
Before the country can move past racial harm, there needs to be “truth, then accountability and then maybe reconciliation,” said Dionne Grayman, who trains schools to have difficult conversations about race.
Failing to understand the history of race and racism and a strong desire to overlook the worst aspects of racist violence in the United States has fueled resentment toward civil rights activism, said Dan Hirschman, an assistant professor of sociology at Brown University in Rhode Island.
That resentment is cultivated by groups including right-wing media and white supremacists, he said.
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For example, Hirschman said he sees calls to move past the storming of the Capitol last month. He warned that achieving racial progress, such as electing Joe Biden as president, can trigger an immense backlash.
“We have to sort of assume that’s going to happen and try to work to make sure it doesn’t,” he said.
Hirschman said the outpouring of support, particularly from white Democrats, for the Black Lives Matter movement during the nationwide racial justice protests in the wake of Floyd’s death was a positive step toward recognizing more enduring forms of structural racism.
Like the protests, Black History Month provides an opportunity to center the curriculum and broader public conversation on these issues, but it shouldn’t be the only moment to do so, Hirschman said.
“It can’t do all the work,” he said.
Here’s how to celebrate Black History Month
The theme of Black History Month 2021 is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity,” chosen by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
Many institutions, including the ASAALH and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, offer digital programming for those celebrating at home.
The NAACP offers guidance for businesses on the best way to honor Black History Month.
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King suggested blackpast.org, Black History 101 Mobile Museum and the books “A Black Women’s History of the United States” and “From Slavery to Freedom” as resources for those looking to learn more about Black history.
King emphasized that educators should “teach Black history from Black perspectives.” He offered seven guiding principles for educators to explore when teaching Black history:
- Power, oppression and racism
- Black agency, perseverance and resistance
- Africa and the African diaspora
- Black joy and Black love
- Black identities – other than heterosexual, Christian, middle-class Black men
- Black historical contention and the problematic aspects of Black history
- Black excellence
One area to focus on is getting “an accurate understanding of Reconstruction,” the period after the Civil War, to help Americans better understand “contemporary forms of racialized violence like mass incarceration,” Hirschman said.
He said it’s important to recognize the many ways racism is baked into America’s foundational systems.
“It’s definitely deeply worked into the structure of the country,” he said.
Grayman, a staff developer at Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York City, said teaching Black history should go beyond the month of February. A former English teacher, she suggested including more Black authors such as James Baldwin into the literary canon.
“The historical contributions of Black people need to be integrated into the curriculum,” Grayman said.
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg
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