Black History Month: How Do We Change History?

Students explore the origins of Black History Month and consider where we stand today in creating a more inclusionary history in classrooms across the country.     

To the teacher:

February is Black History Month, a time when teachers around the country seek out materials and initiate projects that acknowledge and celebrate African American contributions to our society.  It can also be a time to pause and question why we dedicate a month to teaching material that should be incorporated in our teaching throughout the school year.  Though curricular materials may have gotten better at including the contributions of African Americans since the 1960s, black history is still a largely neglected part of mainstream American history.
It was for this reason, back in 1926, that Carter G. Woodson, an African American historian and scholar who dedicated his life to the study of black history, pioneered the celebration of "Negro History Week." Woodson wanted to uncover and preserve the history of African Americans in the US, 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). 
In today's lesson we'll explore the origins of Black History Month and where we stand today in creating a more inclusionary history in classrooms across the country. 



Ask student if they know what the month February has been designated to celebrate.  Elicit that it's Black History Month, which was created to combat the underrepresentation of African American contributions to our history. 
Ask students to share the name of an African American who has contributed to American history and how.
You might consider challenging your students to each come up with a different African American, which might lead to a reflection about how few African American historical figures are known to us. 

Check Agenda and Goals


Reasons for Having Black History Month

Ask students in pairs to discuss reasons why Black History Month is important.  Give them a few minutes before bringing everyone back to the large group.  Ask students to share out their various reasons.  On a T-chart, list these reasons on the left side titled "reasons to have Black History Month."  If students need material to enrich their discussion, have them read the following excerpts before discussing in their pairs. 

Excerpt 1 (Jeffrey L. Boney, January 2014, in the Forward Times Online)

As we approach the beginning of another Black History Month celebration, I can't help but think about its origination. I can appreciate Black History Month's foundational roots, in that one of my favorite African American authors was responsible for its inception.
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson pioneered the celebration of "Negro History Week", which he designated for the second week in February, to coincide with marking the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  After "Negro History Week" became widely accepted, it was extended to a full month; which we now celebrate as Black History Month ...

Excerpt 2 (Theodore Johnson, January 2014, in the Huffington Post

Black History Month is upon us once again, and with it comes a parade of facts to enlighten the nation on the contributions blacks have made to America. There will be children reciting famous lines from "I Have A Dream," high school students writing about George Washington Carver and his peanuts and probably some game shows questions on African-American inventors. Once March arrives, the nation will collectively pat itself on the back for having done its due diligence in paying homage to a few heroic black figures ... 

Excerpt 3 (Carla Beauvais, February 2014, in Huffington Post)

Black History Month began Saturday. Officially celebrated in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, Black History Month ... is a time to pay homage to members of black communities who have distinguished themselves in various walks of life. ....
Black history is rich and vast; it doesn't simply belong to blacks, but has universal significance. Be it in the sciences, in politics or in human rights, all of humanity has benefited from the contributions of black communities. Nonetheless, these contributions, as impressive as they may be, remain under-represented, both in our children's school curricula and in our daily lives.
Conversely, stereotypes and prejudices against blacks continue to be reinforced in the media. Thus, Black History Month is an opportunity to counter this unidimensional vision of our societies and to offer a competing vision that more accurately reflects a reality where individuals of different origins see themselves represented and feel respected. In this manner, this celebration of difference becomes a celebration of belonging for us all, on equal footing, as members of the human race.



Reasons against Having Black History Month

Of course there are those who argue against Black History Month.  Ask students what the arguments against Black History Month may be.  Chart them on the right side of the T-chart under the heading "reasons to not have Black History Month."
Next split your class in two, asking one group to read the Jeffrey L. Boney excerpt below while the other group reads the Theodore Johnson excerpt. 
After reading their (respective) excerpts, ask students in their two groups to discuss the article. 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the article?
  • What was the point that Jeffrey L. Boney and Theodore Johnson were trying to make in their respective articles?

Have a representative from each group summarize the article for the other group.  Then go back to the T-chart, asking students to add to the right side of the chart some reasons to not have Black History Month. 
Having added the various reasons against Black History Month, ask students to look at the chart to see what the notice about the two sides. 

  • What are the differences?
  • Are there similarities perhaps?  Discuss.



Let's go back to this question of whether to celebrate Black History Month.  Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou thinks that Black History Month important as long it's necessary.  I long for the time when we don't need one month set aside for black history, but until that time it's wonderful to have all children - black children, white children, Asian children, Spanish speaking children - realize that only equals can be friends.  We're all looking for civil rights for everybody: for men, for women, for children - for fat people and thin people, and pretty ones and plain ones, and gay ones and straight ones.  That's really what civil rights is an attempt to do.

 Now let's also think back to Theodore Johnson's.  He argues that history

...should explore many and varied journeys" of our citizens.  The kind of century-long journeys that evinces the faith of a family, even when it presents harsh realities. ... the forced immigration of my male African ancestor to this land and the forced removal of my female Native American ancestor from this land is equally American. 

Think about those two quotes together and about the purpose of history.  Ask students:

  • What changes do you think we need to make to teach history in a way that fully recognizes the contributions of people from all walks of life and from every background?



Black History Month: More than a Month to Me

By Jeffrey L. Boney January 2014
... 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.
Carter G. Woodson devoted the majority of his life to historical research and towards working to preserve the history of African Americans in this country.
Woodson believed that, "Race prejudice 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."
Woodson accumulated a collection of thousands of artifacts and publications because he felt that the contributions of African Americans in this country were being overlooked, ignored and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.
Black history should be highlighted in all of the standard textbooks that are distributed to students in schools, colleges and universities across this country.
I know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and a few other Black historical figures are briefly mentioned in textbooks across the country; but there are so many other Black Americans who've made major contributions to our society and they deserve the same top-billing that Christopher Columbus gets for finding a land that was already inhabited by people.
Why should the contributions of Benjamin Banneker who helped survey the city of Washington, D.C. or the discoveries of hundreds of new uses for fruits and vegetables (particularly peanuts) by George Washington Carver, be limited to one month?
Why should Charles Drew, who pioneered the techniques for Blood Banking and Blood Transfusions, be limited to only 28 days of discussion in February and then get archived until the next year?
Why shouldn't all students in the U.S. know about Edward Alexander Bouchet, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Physics from Yale and the 6th American to earn a Ph.D. in Physics in the U.S.; and yet with all of those credentials couldn't even get a job because he was Black?
These are but a few of the many contributions these Black Americans had on our wonderful country, and these Black Americans should be embraced and exalted to the highest level of significance year-round, not just in February.
I will never accept the premise that I, as a Black man, should be thankful that I am "given" an entire month to celebrate Black history, when I know Black history is such a major part of American history.  


What Black History Month Should Be

By Theodore Johnson
... The rote recitation of black achievements is an abridged version of a rich history presented as a sloppily composed slide presentation. Facts are important, of course, but they are wholly insufficient. If this is indeed the extent of the celebration, we will have missed another opportunity to bring the black American experience to life and render from it its true, intrinsic value.
The current aim of Black History Month should not be the construction of a mere timeline of events and personas. Instead, it should be to explore the many and varied journeys of our black citizens today. This approach will inherently intersect with the seminal moments in black history while also providing an accompanying personal narrative that commands a deeper appreciation. In this way, facts in textbooks leap off the page and become life-changing inspirations more accessible to all Americans.
National African American History Month began in 1926 as Negro History Week by historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson. ... renowned historian Allen Ballard wrote that its purpose was to give blacks "an intellectual and emotional anchor in the midst of overt racism, legal segregation and the attendant myths of white superiority."
If it was initially an anchor, it should now be a vessel; one that sets sails and takes the country on a journey through the troubled waters of the African-American experience.
In the early years, it made sense for the celebration to be a simple introduction to the black characters and achievements left out of white and black segregated classrooms. But since then, the remembrance has not evolved with society's progress. The month still has the feel of a series of "did you know" trivia questions with little context or exploration of its deeper meaning. History is a quest, not a list of dates and names.
Besides, as others have noted, there is simply no extracting black history from American history. For example, why must we wait until February to talk about Carver's development of crop rotation methods that tremendously increased yields and continues to be central to the farming industry? This fact is integral to any serious discussion about the American agrarian capitalism that predated the Industrial Revolution and still persists in today's agribusiness.
Carver did not make contributions solely intended for black America; he was a black man who made contributions to all of America. Let's discuss his path instead of relegating him to the peanut gallery. There may be interest in the fact, but there is power in the story.
This isn't an abstract concept; it's personal. Black History Month taught me that Booker T. Washington was the first black man to have dinner with the President at the White House. Interesting, sure. But the more compelling context is that the event touched my great-grandparents and forged my family's path for the next century when they named their son after the president, Theodore Roosevelt. Through lynchings, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, black power and the mainstreaming of black celebrity, this latest chapter in our story concluded with my dinner with the first black president of the United States.
Black history is this sort of century-long journey that evinces the faith of a family, even when it presents harsh realities. While the above may sound especially American, the forced immigration of my male African ancestor to this land and the forced removal of my female Native American ancestor from this land is equally American. This month should focus on the exploration of these hard truths.
My story isn't special. The exceptionality of the black experience is common. Our country's black citizens have incredible stories of resilience and belief in the American dream that are worthy of national focus. Every single one of them.
The White House will once again make a national proclamation that formally designates February as the month to focus on the history of black Americans. This year, and for years to come, we should all explore our own stories and share them with the world. This is the best way to appreciate the unique African-American journey and celebrate Black History Month.