by Renee Jacobs
Happy Black History Month! Although we know that good practice is to teach accurate history every day of the academic year, Black History Month is a wonderful time of year to highlight the contributions that Black people have given to the United States and the world. This year, during your school’s preparation, I would advise you to gauge the degree of crazy behavior or avoidance that could ensue.
Every year as February approaches, I see very caring teachers become crazy with trying to get Black history month bulletin boards up in the school. In some cases, the precision and focus involved with making sure things are colored, cut, and mini-lessoned is unmatched. Sadly, we feel accomplished, but the level of understanding that the students have about the importance of such contributions as the pacemaker (invented by Otis Boykin) is dependent upon if the students paid attention during the thirty second speech on the morning announcements or if they noticed the facts on those strategically placed bulletin boards. We don’t teach any other aspects of history with such disregard. I would like to recommend that you take some time to think through your presentation of our shared history because there is actually no Black history, only history. However, our curriculums don’t reflect this fact so we need to continue celebrating the month for now so our students can see and celebrate heroes of every race.
There are also schools that are so uncomfortable with discussions about race that they choose to avoid any story related to Black History that isn’t sweet or does not have an ending that ties a pretty bow on the way we “should” remember the past. It’s predictable that the same story of Dr. King’s dream, Harriet Tubman’s railroad trip, and Rosa Park’s seat will be on repeat in classrooms all over the country throughout the month of February. Many versions of these stories lack depth and in many cases are not shared accurately at all so that the teacher and our organizations can remain comfortable. Another form of avoidance is the “family heritage” approach. In these schools, teachers assign all students a project that requires them to research their family heritage in celebration of “Heritage Month” or “International Food Day”. This way, we can say that we looked at Black history as we looked at the family history of all our students.
In case no one else told you, I will be your Black teacher friend that is going to tell you a bit of truth that will improve relationships and the authenticity of your practice. Crazy last-minute bulletin board frenzies and avoidance are not respectful. Your Black families are often inferring their significance to your school community based on many interactions, and this is one of them. This opportunity is important to connect with families. We need to approach Black History using professional reflection and excellence. For example, do educators ever discuss with students the fact that Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony lived during the same time period? Black history is American history; it must be intentionally integrated. If teachers understood the importance of taking the time to find meaningful resources to engage students in rich conversations about the contributions of Black people throughout the year and also highlight this learning during the month of February with students and families in mind rather than remaining in the personal comfort of the repeating last year’s lesson, it would be so impactful. Our relationships can be strengthened by the amount of effort that we put into community building work such as respectfully and authentically celebrating people. This will be a process, but in the meantime try to remember… it’s not about the bulletin board.