Black History Month & the Danger of a Single Story

Students explore why it is important for people to be able to tell their own stories and relate that to Black History Month.    


To prepare for this lesson: 

Homework Assignment

For homework, invite students to bring an item from home that represents who they are, an item that tells a key story about them and how they see themselves.  If it is not possible to bring the item in, ask students to take a picture of the item or try to draw it.


Invite students to share the item, or image of the item, they brought from home and tell the story about how they see themselves related to the item. 
Debrief the activity by asking some or all of the following questions:

  • Share any connections, reflections or additions you have based on the stories you just heard.  How do these stories represent our classroom community?
  • Why might it be important for us to share our own stories in our own words?  What might happen if we only allowed others to share our stories for us?
  • How would you feel if only some students were allowed to share their stories, but not others?  How would you feel if only some of us were allowed to represent our classroom community? 
  • How would you feel if you were among those encouraged to share your stories?  How would you feel if you were among those prevented from sharing your stories?
  • Why is it important to have different voices and stories represented in our class?  What does that do for our learning?
  • Why is it important to have different voices and stories represented in our history, social studies, and other curricula?  What does that do for our learning? 

Check Agenda and Objectives 


The History of Black History Month

Invite students to share what they know about Black History Month.  Do they know why Black History Month was established, when, and by whom?  
Invite them next to read about Black History Month in this pdf handout. (It also appears at the end of this lesson.) 

Debrief the reading by asking:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the handout you just read?


The Importance of Story Telling

Invite students next to read the quotes in this pdf handout. (They also appear at the end of this lesson.) Ask them to consider the quotes in the context of Black History Month.  
After they’ve read the quotes, invite each student to pick a quote that resonates with them, share their quote and say why it resonated with them in the context of Black History Month.  


TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie:

Show the following 19-minute TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie. Adichie is a Nigerian novelist, nonfiction and short story writer, and a MacArthur Genius Award recipient.
Debrief the TED talk using some or all of the following questions:

1.  What does Adichie say the discovery of African writers did for her?

2.  What does Adichie say about the single story she had of her house boy Fide and his family? What does she say about the single story Americans have of Africans? What does she say about the single story she herself had of Mexicans?

3.  What does Adichie say about power in relation to the single story?  (She mentions the Igbo word nkali, which she explains loosely means "to be greater than another." Nkali, she says, affects how stories are told, who tells them, when then are told, how many stories are told. Power affects not just the ability to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person.)  

4.  What does Adichie say about where to start a story?  How does this relate to power?

5.  Adichie says that the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story."  She adds: "It is impossible to engage properly with a place or person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.  The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of their dignity.  It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.  It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar."  Invite students to share their thoughts about the idea of the "single story becoming the only story" and how this "robs people of their dignity."

6.  Adichie says: "Stories matter.  Many stories matter.  Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.  Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity."  Invite students to share their thoughts about stories as a way to dispossess and to malign. Ask them to share their thoughts about stories as a way to empower and humanize.

7.  Adichie ends her talk with the following:  "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." How does this relate back to the idea of Black History Month we discussed earlier today?


In closing, read the poem "I Too" by Langston Hughes out loud. 

I, Too
By Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America. 
I am the darker brother. 
They send me to eat in the kitchen 
When company comes, 
But I laugh, 
And eat well, 
And grow strong. 
I’ll be at the table 
When company comes. 
Nobody’ll dare 
Say to me, 
"Eat in the kitchen," 
They’ll see how beautiful I am 
And be ashamed— 
I, too, am America.


Black History Month

(PDF version)

Black History Month is acknowledged by some and ignored by others; and while it’s acknowledged by most people in this country, I believe it’s a travesty that anyone, especially members of the Black community, have chosen to limit their historical focus to the shortest month of the year. Black history should be celebrated and acknowledged in America, 365 days a year-7 days a week-24 hours a day; the very same way the founding fathers are heralded and celebrated daily.  -Jeffrey L. Boney, Houston Forward Times

In an ideal world, a separate month for Black history would not be necessary. Unfortunately, though, the lives and stories of Black people continue to be minimized in narratives of American history, left out by those who have the privilege of telling our country’s story.  Until that changes, there is a need for Black History Month.  
Carter G. Woodson, an African American historian and scholar who dedicated his life to the study of Black history, recognized this back in 1926.  It is why he pioneered the celebration of "Negro History Week."  Woodson wanted to uncover and preserve the history of African Americans in the U.S., hoping to instill in African Americans a sense of self-esteem and confidence that would fuel the quest for justice. A history manipulated by white mainstream culture, he said, has resulted in "No systematic effort toward change... for, taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion ... the Negro's mind has been brought under the control of this oppressor.... When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions."
A more inclusive history, Woodson hoped, would also foster understanding between whites and Blacks. "Race prejudice," Woodson said, "is merely the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind." Learning about Black contributions to American history would engender greater respect among whites, Woodson believed. And though we’ve made progress toward teaching history in a way that fully represents the contributions of African Americans (as well as other excluded groups), we still have a long way to go.
Ironically, the history of Black History Month itself is often neglected and misrepresented. Most Americans don’t know who Carter G. Woodson was or that he, a Black man, originated what became Black History Month.  Another little known fact is that February was picked to be Black History Month (and the original "Negro History Week") to coincide with the birthday of African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass (as well as President Abraham Lincoln). 
Of course the elevation of Black voices and a focus on their stories during the month of February does not mitigate the lack of celebration of Black contributions to American society throughout the year.  It does however give us pause and a time to be mindful of those voices and stories. It allows us to reflect on the reasons why these voices and stories have been omitted in the first place. 



Black Voices on Story Telling

(PDF version)

"The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free."  — Ta-Nehisi Coates, American writer, journalist, and educator

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."   — James Baldwin, American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic



 "I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.  The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity.  It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.  It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar."  — Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian novelist, nonfiction and short story writer


"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."  — Maya Angelou, American poet, memoirist and civil rights activist





 "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive." — Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist

"Popular films are so powerful and compelling that it’s often easier to accept their versions of history than the much more complicated true stories."   — Melissa Harris-Perry, writer, professor and political commentator

 "Black history isn't a separate history. This is all of our history, this is American history, and we need to understand that. It has such an impact on kids and their values and how they view black people."   — Karyn Parsons, actress

"We should emphasize not Negro history, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice."  — Carter Woodson, historian, journalist, founder of Association for the Study of African American Life and History

"I am America.  I am the part you won’t recognize.  But get used to me.  Black confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours, my goals, my own; get used to me."  — Muhammad Ali, boxer and activist

"For I am my mother's daughter, and the drums of Africa still beat in my heart."  — Mary McLeod Bethune, educator, stateswoman, humanitarian and civil rights activist

 "Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations."  — Dr. Mae Jemison, first African-American female astronaut

"Defining myself, as opposed to being defined by others, is one of the most difficult challenges I face." — Carol Moseley-Braun, politician and lawyer