Although February’s yearly recognition of Black Americans was initiated with good intentions, the structure of Black History Month hasn’t changed with the times. The teachings have become rote and outdated. If we’re honest, we’ll admit it: Black History Month doesn’t work anymore. To make a genuine difference in race relations in our country, we need to give it a “makeover” and begin a different approach.
It’s hard to give up on something that for so long has been a point of pride. Negro History Week was created in 1926 to encourage educators to teach the often-overlooked contributions by African Americans. In 1976, the U.S. government formally recognized Black History Month, albeit in the shortest month of the year.
When I was growing up, February was the one month that teachers intentionally taught us about Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And that’s how it’s still being done in many schools today.
But come March 1st, that emphasis on Black History is gone. It’s back to business as usual, with the focus on traditional (read: white) history. Black history is still taught as a separate piece of American history—just as segregated as schools were in the 1950s. As African Americans, we deserve to embrace the sacrifices and accomplishments of our ancestors– but those sacrifices and accomplishments are also part of the greater country’s history. To hold our history and ourselves apart marginalizes us, reinforcing the concept that don’t have all of the rights and privileges of Americans.
Teaching a lesson on Black History or about anything once a year isn’t effective. On a recent episode of Jeopardy, white university students sailed through questions in the categories of “weather verbs” and “kiwi fauna” but studiously avoided questions in the category of Black History. No doubt, these students were taught about Black History when they were young, but a once a year focus doesn’t stick.
Black History is frequently taught as if the history started in the 1800s and stopped in 1968. Today’s kids, the ones who are supposed to getting the most out of these lessons, have difficulty relating to the world of slavery and Jim Crow. Sure, they should know about W.E.B. Du Bois, but let’s face it; they are more likely to relate to heroes of the current century. But the heroes they see most often are limited to the entertainment and sports industry—further reinforcing the stereotype.
Glancing at the headlines, it’s obvious that racism still exists in our country. When young black men can be shot for walking in a neighborhood or playing music loudly, or when a singer can call the president of our country a “subhuman mongrel,” and still be embraced by a Republican gubernatorial candidate, clearly, none of us have reached the mountain top yet.
Is Black History Month supposed to remedy all of that? No, and I don’t pretend that it will. But when Black History is considered the history that we share, it initiates a change. Instead of concentrating on Black America and White America, we become Americans. Let’s begin by embedding Black History into the entire school curriculum. Not just in February, but also during science class in April, teach kids about Dr. Ben Carson and Mae Jemison. But do this alongside lessons about scientists like Sanjay Gupta and Stephen Hawking. During the November history class on elections, discuss Aja Brown’s election as mayor of Compton California mayor and Richard Daly’s reign as mayor of Chicago.
In this way, we create a joint foundation that incorporates the wealth of all of our peoples’ history into our kids’ daily coursework. It’s only when we integrate our pasts—respecting and acknowledging the role that all of our ancestors played in creating this country—that we have a much better chance of integrating our futures.