Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Asking Questions about Black History Month

Every February 1st, I explained to students why we would not be doing anything "special" for Black History Month. And while I am comfortable with that decision, I have always thought it was important to explain to my students why I made that decision.

Quite a few years have past since I first did that, and the passage of time has only served to further convince me that this is good choice.

Let me be clear: I do NOT believe that having a black president means everything is okay for African Americans or with race relations in the United States. I do not believe we are in a "post-racial" era. (See resources below). But I do think we are in an era when the concept of Black History Month raises more questions than it solves problems. So at the beginning of February, I prefer to raise questions.

For those of us who teach U.S. history, isolating our study of African American history to February doesn't work well on a practical level or conceptually. We simply cannot tell or analyze the story of the United States without Black History. Our school year starts in August; we cannot wait for February.

This 2009 article, "With a black president in the White House, some wonder if Black History Month is still necessary" echoes what I used to tell students. It also explains how the month came to be, which is also worth sharing with students. (You can read more on that here). Interestingly, the founder of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson himself hoped that one day Black History Month (in his day it was Negro History Week) would no longer be necessary. The article also touches on an issue which has come to concern me a lot in the last few years: the possibility that poor history teaching and reading the about the same few African American heroes every year and reading only King's, "I Have a Dream Speech" as a way to learn about Civil Rights will trivialize and simplify a history that is far more complex.

I would also recommend a much older article (which I have given to students to read) written by an African American school principal, Wayne Joseph, "Why I Dread Black History Month."  Published in Newsweek, the link attributes the article to "Newsweek staff," but it was originally published in the "My Turn" section. It makes a convincing argument against separating out Black history from American history.

So what about the idea of spending a few minutes each day or week focusing on one African American figure in history? I'm not so keen on that either. Again, from a practical sense, it doesn't really work (we've only got 40-50 minutes!). But I also fear it leads to the sort of activities that involve students making superficial posters about black heroes that may or may not have a relevant connection to American history and trivializing the very real accomplishments of individual African Americans on the one hand, and African American history in general on the other.

And are we going to do this all year long for all the other groups of Americans and for all the other months...?
Heritage Celebrated
None to date
African American History Month
National Women's History Month
None to date
Asian Pacific American Heritage, Older Americans Month and Jewish American Heritage Month
Gay Lesbian Pride Month
None to date
None to date
National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15)
National Disability Employment Awareness Month and National Italian American Heritage Month
National American Indian Heritage Month
None to date; are two international commemorations
link for above chart and info about each month (Check out the website it came from:

I will devote my next post to African Americans during the Progressive Era. (I note with bemusement that I often taught this topic by fluke of the calendar during the first day or two of February).

A few articles and other resources about the debate over whether or not the United States is now "post-racial."

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