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Black History Month remains resolute in face of backlash


Sharing a collective experience with America’s youth

The way children are taught Black history has become a contentious topic of debate. Whether it is the names being discussed, or which perspectives should be included in the lesson plan, the issue has become a flash point of controversy at local school boards, in a growing number of statehouses, and in the halls of Congress.

As teachers begin their Black History Month lessons amid a conservative backlash, some people worry about the future of the annual celebration as well as its place in education. The national racial reckoning in the spring and summer of 2020 promoted many schools across the nation to begin embracing and implementing in-depth curriculum and literature standards to discuss race, diversity and equity. In some quarters, these decisions met with virulent opposition from parents and school administrators.

An unvarnished ‘origin’ story

Black history offers the nation an unvarnished “origin” story. It is a story that transcends the mythology of America’s founding and conveys the lived realities of African-Americans and their centrality to the nation we live in today. Sharing these collective experiences with students in an age-appropriate manner has been included in lesson plans for at least six decades, specifically coming to fruition following the Civil Rights Movement. Today, there is an erroneous narrative that teaching Black history provokes anxiety, discomfort, guilt or anger among White children. Black history study is an important chronicle of America that deserves to be reckoned with by new generations of school children, irrespective of the manufactured concerns of a segment of the conservative voting block or of White parents in general.

The latest debate over race and diversity in education can largely be traced to the State of Florida and its efforts to ban so-called Critical Race Theory instruction from secondary school through the collegiate and post-graduate years. For the past three years, the controversy has spanned nationwide as libraries and classrooms have been facing legislation that restricts certain lessons about race, as well as an unprecedented number of complaints against literature–written by or about African-Americans–by a growing number of right-leaning political advocacy groups.

No American history without Black history

Supporters of these efforts say these actions give more power to parents over what they want their children to learn. The majority of the books being “banned” or challenged, however, have been longtime staples in school and public libraries such as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and, among White authors, Harper’s Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” and even “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“We have to continue to make sure that people recognize that Black history is unique in itself and there’s no American history without it,” said Sharif El-Mekki, co-founder of the Center for Black Educator Development. “We have to be vigilant, even with a formal Black history Month.” 

El-Mekki is among a vocal yet beleaguered group of educators who believe that honest lessons about Black history in the U.S.—supplemented by conversations on racism and equity–make for a well-rounded education. In Florida, and in a growing number of states with conservative legislatures and school boards, such views have fostered increasing scrutiny from an influential and well-organized opposition. Florida’s “Stop Woke ACT” of 2022, for instance, restricts certain race-related content in workplaces, secondary schools and colleges. Its restrictions on higher education have been temporarily blocked and are being battled out in the courts.

Florida’s faulty view of American history

“Woke,” as defined by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration (i.e. Florida Office of General Council), is the “inaccurate belief” that “there are systemic injustices in American society.” Proponents of Black history study say these issues must be addressed at a young age. Classrooms and K-12 libraries in Florida have since been subjected to heavy vetting under the new law. One school decided to cover up or remove books in their classrooms that have not been approved under the Stop WOKE Act.

“What we have here going on is: Teachers are very scared,” said Stephana Ferrell, a member of a local advocacy group called Freedom to Read Project. “[Teachers] know they have their district telling them that they could face third-degree felonies, that they could be reprimanded or even fired subdued for saying or teaching the wrong thing.” For the past two years, DeSantis has doubled down on his pledge to largely rid the state of Black history study vowing that such programs and/or instruction would get “no funding, and that they will wither on the vine.”

Despite the recent backlash against Black studies, some schools are expanding their focus on this vital review of American history. More Black studies programs are being implemented nationwide, alongside Latino and Asian studies. These courses aim to expand student knowledge about non-white communities and their role in the US. and world history. 

Connecticut has required all state schools to offer Black and Latino studies. Colleges and universities in New York are required to incorporate diversity in general education requirements. California requires all high school students to complete an ethnic studies class to earn their diploma.

Children ‘too young’ to learn about racism?

The Washington Post last year looked into the backlash against Black History Month. Their primary focus was to see if there was any validity of “mainstream media narratives” centering on the anger and indignation of White parents regarding the teaching of Black history in public education.

As is common during hyper-political times, the majority of the complaints came from so-called “red-state” parents in states like Virginia, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee theorized that Black history study–and the violent tales therein–are not appropriate lesson plans in school. One Black mother from Charlottesville, Va. told the publication: “They say, ‘our’ children are too young to hear about racism. Who is ‘our’ children? I don’t remember a day of my life when I wasn’t taught about racism, or learning about it through just existing. Our children, meaning Black children, have had to be taught different ways to stay safe and maneuver through the world.”

There’s a new theme every year for Black History Month. This year’s topic is “African-Americans and the Arts,” which explores the key influence African-Americans have had in the fields of visual and performing arts, literature, fashion, folklore, language, film, music, architecture, culinary and other forms of cultural expression.

Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African-Americans. It is also a time for recognizing the central role this community has played in American history. Sometimes it’s referred to as African-American History Month. The idea grew out of Negro History Week, the brainchild of historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African-Americans. The original idea wasn’t to place limitations but, rather, to focus and broaden the nation’s consciousness. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating Black history.

The work of Carter G. Woodson

The story of Black History Month began in 1915, half a century after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. In the fall of that year, Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland, a well-known minister, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by African-Americans and others persons of African descent.

In 1926, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History sponsored a national Negro History Week, choosing the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The event inspired schools and communities nationwide to organize local celebrations, establish history clubs, and host performances and lectures. 

In the decades that followed, mayors of cities across the country began issuing yearly proclamations recognizing “Negro History Week. By the late 1960s, encouraged greatly by the Civil Rights Movement and a growing awareness of Black identity (e.g. “Black Power,” “Black Is Beautiful”), Negro History Week had transformed into Black History Month on many college campuses.

President Gerald Ford in 1976 officially recognized Black History Month. Ford called on the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Forty years after Ford formally recognized Black History Month, it was Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, who delivered a message of his own at the White House:

“Black History Month shouldn’t be treated as though it is somehow separate from our collective American history or somehow just boiled down to a compilation of greatest hits from the March on Washington or from some of our sports heroes,” Obama said. “It’s about the lived, shared experience of all African-Americans, high and low, famous and obscure, and how these experiences have shaped and challenged and ultimately strengthened America.”