By: Rashid Duroseau
Black Excellence must be celebrated every single day of the year.
Black History Month, in particular, should be framed as an opportunity to place an even greater emphasis on extolling the brilliance, creativity, and resilience of members of the African diaspora.
The past year’s events–the elation of witnessing so many diverse identities winning a seat at the proverbial table, the agony of seeing so many Black and Brown lives lost to a pandemic and state violence, and everything in between–reveal, once again, the duality of the Black American experience. Moreover, they underscore the urgent need to validate and nurture Black civic agency and collective transcendence.
We are living through a historic inflection point; educators are being called upon to help our students develop a sense of purpose and optimism in these wondrous, bewildering times. In answering that call, we send two powerful messages to young people: first, that they are the descendants of a complex and majestic history, and second, that they are the architects and heralds of a kinder, more inclusive, more just world. To amplify these messages and ensure that they are internalized by all of the children in our communities, staff should make a point of coordinating their efforts and establishing a unified voice, stating plainly that all Black lives matter, and everyone has the potential to challenge the status quo.
The following recommendations, while far from exhaustive, present some of the core conceptual frameworks to establish a meaningful Black History Month tradition in schools. As educators will have varying levels of experience coordinating Black History Month programming, the following guide includes both abstract principles to help structure one’s thinking, as well as concrete suggested initial steps to ensure reflection translates into purposeful action in service of our young people.
1. A meaningful Black History Month promotes conscious citizenship and “audacious faith”
“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”
-Ta Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often asserted that the human condition is marked by the “perennial tension” between an acknowledgement of how the world presently is and a yearning for how it ought to be. In 1964, during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, King passionately rejected the notion that the “isness” of the present should ever render a society incapable of striving for the “oughtness” of a world not yet born. He declared that he had an “audacious faith” in humankind’s potential to transcend division, greed, and indifference.
Likewise, an impactful Black History Month will gaze unflinchingly at the world as it is while remaining rooted in an audacious faith that our young people will usher us into a new era of justice and equity. James Baldwin famously warned that, “…nothing can be changed until it is faced,” and indeed, if we do not help our scholars navigate the complexities of their worlds, we cannot hope to adequately prepare them to address and solve the many challenges of our time.
In order to fulfill our most sacred imperative as educators, it is essential that we prioritize our students’ needs over our own comfort and engage in difficult conversations about race and identity. Additionally, we must emphasize examples of extraordinary-ordinary citizens affecting positive change, and we must provide spaces for them to get into what the late Congressman John Lewis would call “good trouble” — persistently and courageously challenging injustice in the face of opposition from those who hold power.
Suggested initial steps:
• Begin (or continue) a process of personal reflection and research regarding race, privilege, and identity. A helpful starting point is the NMAAHC’s “Talking About Race” hub.
• Establish a safe and brave space for difficult conversations in your classroom. Both Facing History and Ourselves and Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) offer stellar resources to help guide this work.
• Seek to learn from students by asking open-ended questions.
• Ensure that you are guiding your students’ thinking, ultimately allowing them to arrive at their own conclusions. Particularly in these polarized times, one should avoid proselytizing. For example, if you share your personal beliefs on the debate around defunding the police, be certain to invite students to disagree and provide counterarguments. For more detailed instruction, read R.C. Gellar’s Annals of Social Studies Education Research for Teachers article, “Teacher Political Disclosure in the Trump Era”.
• Engage with topics surrounding race with courage and humility—provide as much accurate information as you can and acknowledge when you don’t have the answers to a given question. This approach can be helpful both in facilitating discussions with students and engaging in staff-level conversations.
• Help students identify historical patterns and examples of systemic inequality in discussions of current events. The aim should be to discuss not only what is happening, but also to provide larger frameworks that help students establish a schema for processing subsequent events and identifying connections/intersections.
• Acknowledge historical trauma without dwelling on it—be sure to place a greater emphasis upon narratives of resistance, liberation, and the power of protest.
• When concluding discussions of current events, particularly regarding troubling topics, offer suggestions for how young people and ordinary adult citizens can take action to build a better world. To the extent possible, seek out opportunities and resources for students to support/advocate for their selected causes.
• Infuse Black History into curricular materials in an organic, thoughtful, and substantive way. This means moving beyond distributing a one-pager or extra credit homework assignment and instead, intentionally designing opportunities for sustained discussions, extended projects, or thematic explorations. Educators who are new to the profession (or ones who do not have as much autonomy with regard to adjusting their curriculum) should reach out to their academic coaches to have a conversation about what this could look like. Build a partnership with the school social worker to develop routines and lesson prompts to help students navigate their emotional responses to world events.
2. A meaningful Black History Month simultaneously builds unity and honors diversity
“…when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise. ”
-Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story”
We must remind our young people (and ourselves) that Blackness is far from monolithic. With an embrace that spans across virtually every conceivable form of categorization—geography, complexion, religion, economic status, and countless others—Blackness defies reduction. As such, Black excellence has an infinite number of manifestations.
A thoughtful Black History Month will challenge and expand students’ understanding of what it means to be Black, and it furthermore will draw from a broad spectrum of voices and perspectives to highlight various paths to a life of purpose and impact. Schools send a powerful implicit message about what is valued and not valued—visible and invisible—through the topics they choose to emphasize; it is of critical importance that staff broaden their understanding of Blackness in order to ensure all students see their experiences reflected in school programming.
Suggested initial steps:
• Leverage conversations and personal relationships with students to better understand what nuanced aspects of Blackness are important to them, and therefore need further validation and exploration during Black History Month. A possible sequence of questions to consider is: What do you believe most people think about when they think of Blackness? What do you wish they would think about instead?
• Explain the concept of a diasporic community, then create space for students to reflect on their own connection to Blackness. How does being Afrolatinx, an American Descendant of Slavery (ADOS), Multiracial, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian, or African shape their relationship to Black History Month?
• Expose students to the works and historical contributions of less frequently discussed members of the Diaspora, such as Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, South African epidemiologist Quarraisha Abdool Karim, Martinican political theorist Frantz Fanon, and Liberian former-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
• Highlight the contributions Black women, in particular, have made to shaping history, and why their accomplishments often have gone unacknowledged.
• Add a level of nuance to your conversations about Blackness by exploring the concepts of intersectionality and intersectional liberation movements. How are the challenges of being Black in an anti-Black context compounded by factors such as gender, sexual orientation, ability, and/or body size?
• Humanize towering figures such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X by exploring less commonly-known aspects of their lives and philosophies.
• Celebrate the icons of the Civil Rights movement while also celebrating current non-traditional heroes. Who are the young people, athletes, artists, and grassroots organizers who are using their talents and platforms to affect positive social change?
3. A meaningful Black History Month heals and reclaims Black children’s imagination
“Bring me all of your dreams,/You dreamers,/ Bring me all of your/ Heart melodies/ That I may wrap them/ In a blue cloud-cloth/ Away from the too-rough fingers/ Of the world.”
– Langston Hughes, “The Dreamkeeper”
It is a lamentable fact that for every moment of pride and triumph young Black and Brown people encounter in the media or on the news, there are multiple others that are discouraging or debasing. A well-executed Black History Month does not retreat from the ugliness in the world; however, it simultaneously creates a safe space to cultivate students’ sense of wonder, possibility, dignity, and joy. Educators should make a point of offering multiple opportunities for children to absorb empowering and uplifting representations of their identities, as well as invite others into their worlds through creative expression. In the face of a near constant barrage of harmful images and messages, the importance of reaffirming the beauty of Black people, Black communities, Black thought, and Black art cannot be overstated.
Suggested initial steps:
• Make a point of communicating to your students, repeatedly, that there are countless models of Black excellence to emulate. After doing so, provide concrete examples of positive representation and guide students to think about how they can embody the qualities being explored. There is an abundance of possible subjects. Among them are: youth activists, school alumni, local grassroots activists, athletes, computer programmers, artists, and first responders.
• Organize events for students to share artifacts, food, and fashion that is meaningful to them. Examples: talent shows, potlucks, open-mics, fashion shows, and show-and-tell.
• Design projects to encourage students to create songs, dances, poems, and videos to share their worldview.
• Develop writing prompts to have students reimagine canonical texts from a Black perspective.
• Plan lessons that push students to apply STEM/design skills to develop solutions to community challenges.
• Highlight the lives and works of Black artists and consider creating a student art gallery in a school community space.
• Visit museums and galleries to show students the beauty and historical richness within their communities and around the world. A byproduct of physical distancing due to the pandemic is that many museums and art galleries have made their exhibitions accessible virtually.
• Host movie screenings and engage in conversations about the importance of positive representation in the media.
• Explore works by Black authors, poets, and playwrights, paying attention to the historical and social contexts in which they produced their works.
• Guide students to draw a connection between the arts and movements for justice and liberation. Examples: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Kehinde Wiley, Jacob Lawrence, and Kara Walker.
4. A meaningful Black History Month strengthens and is strengthened by community
“to you. / my people. of color. / you are an altar of stars . / remember this. / always. / do not ever forget this.”
-Naayirah Waheed, Salt
Simply put, it is not possible to honor our young people fully without also honoring their families and their neighborhoods. The social and physical spaces our students navigate—the spaces to which they belong outside of school—play a tremendous role in shaping their identities. Indeed, education can best be conceived of as the joint efforts of the family, the school, and the community to cultivate a generation of well-rounded, empathetic, and engaged citizens.
A purposeful Black History Month program will reach beyond the walls of the school, at once stepping into the world at large and inviting it in. Educators should seize the opportunity to begin (or continue) forging stronger bonds with families, local leaders, and community institutions. Doing so will reinforce for our young people that they are surrounded by greatness and that they belong to a much larger network than they initially might realize.
Suggested initial steps:
• Include families in the Black History Month planning process and invite them to community events to share cultural pride.
• Consider sharing content and discussion guides with families to enable conversations to continue beyond the classroom.
• Explore opportunities for cross-generational learning, such as interviews and oral history projects.
• Reach out to local colleges and trade schools to coordinate campus tours and student panel discussions.
• Host roundtable discussions or community conversations that are open to the general public.
• Create spaces for families to build relationships with one another and share perspectives.
• Establish connections between the school and local Black-owned businesses.
• Organize community tours to (re)discover the beauty and rich history of the neighborhood. Have students create community resource maps to better familiarize themselves with the services available in the area.
• Invite Black community leaders to speak to students.
• Organize volunteering events with local nonprofit organizations.
• Note: Relationships with families and the community are sacred. They should be approached with the deepest respect and intentionality. Be sure to communicate with your school leadership prior to initiating any large scale partnerships or programs with these important stakeholders.
5. A meaningful Black History Month should be part of a year-round celebration of Black Excellence
“We need a longer month!”
– Whitney Houston
In theory, the practices and mindsets schools embrace during Black History Month should not be significantly different from the ones embedded into their daily operations. Indeed, the work of honoring the identities of the children we educate cannot be done sufficiently over the span of four weeks, just as the recognition of Black contributions to human history cannot be confined to a month of focused study.
As an increasing number of communities adopt fully inclusive, anti-racist approaches to education, we collectively begin to move beyond symbolic gestures and stride in the direction of truly transformative and culturally relevant pedagogy. Perhaps in time, when this becomes the norm, Black History Month will become obsolete. Until then, this tradition offers school communities an annual opportunity to pause and reflect on the extent to which they are equipping their students with one of the most critical tools for empowerment—knowledge and love of self.
Closing reflection questions:
• To what extent do students see themselves in the curricular content and social programming of your school?
• How are students being encouraged to see the connection between what they’re learning and their role in shaping a brighter and more equitable future?
• How are students’ voices being elevated in a meaningful way in the school community?
• To what extent does your school embrace social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices?
• Are you creating opportunities for your students to share their identities and talents with the school community?
• In what ways are the voices and experiences of Black educators in your school being validated and leveraged to better serve children?
• How often do you offer honest feedback to your school leaders and seek to understand the contexts that shape school policies?
• How is your school/network approaching structural inequity within the organization? What are its explicit commitments to antiracism and justice-oriented action?
• How can you cultivate relationships with families and community members to build bridges between the school and the world at large?
• What commitments will you, as an individual educator, make to advocate on behalf of your students to create a more equitable and inclusive learning environment?