There are many notable figures and achievements to study during February’s Black History Month. But with no federal standards or requirements to teach Black history in the U.S. (only a small number of states mandate it) … is America’s reconciliation with its past actively progressive or performative?
If teaching Black American history is typically confined to a specific number of days a year, their significance and contributions to this nation’s story get buried. By not making it a rigorous, all-year-round, central part of the curriculum, it devalues the impact that Black Americans have had — and continue to have. Omittance creates invisibility, and perhaps that’s the point because if something is unseen it becomes unknown, and if it is unknown it can be rewritten.
And this is not a tactic relegated to the past. The previous administration released a deeply disturbing ‘1776 Report’ in January this year to try and replace how U.S. history is taught with what it called a “patriotic education”. Its aim was to corrupt and suppress all that nourish progress, including the truth about systemic racism, critical race theory, slavery and colonialism. The report, compiled by conservative educators loyal to Trump (none of whom were historians) wanted this to be a rebuke of social justice activism, such as Black Lives Matter, and recast any challenges to White supremacy or any movement toward equity as fascism. Thankfully, this report was revoked by the Biden administration, but this doesn’t lessen the fact that there are enough people within the political arena, and beyond, who want America to be reimagined in this way.
We may think of history as fixed and immovable, a factual documentation of our past. But history is only as accurate as the people who write it. And one of Trump’s last actions in office was an attempt to rewrite American history, focusing on our founding ideologies and mythologizing a very specific version of our origin story. | Trump Tried To Rewrite U.S. History – NBC News
The origins of Black History Month started with the founding of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915 by distinguished historian Carter G. Woodson. The ASALH’s aim was to expand the understanding of history to include education and celebration of the achievements of Black American men and women — and for their significance not be regarded as an outlier. In 1926, the ASALH sponsored an annual national Negro History Week in February to further encourage commemoration of Black contributions and excellence all with the hope of advancing a time when a designated period of celebration would no longer be needed. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s witnessed a resurgence of Black activism among college campuses that then championed the observance of a Black History Month. It wasn’t until 1976, that it was officially recognized (by President Gerald Ford) and came to be what we observe today.
Supporting Black History Month should motivate us all to work every other day of the year to expand our knowledge and champion Black (and Indigenous) studies becoming part of the core curriculum — White people in particular need to do this as we have the most to learn. We should recognize and applaud Black firsts within American society, like Shirley Chisholm (the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1969) or Lonnie Bristow (the first Black president of the American Medical Association in 1995) or Rev. Raphael Warnock (Georgia’s first Black Senator in 2020), for example. But we must also take an honest look at why these kinds of accolades are still the exception rather than the rule. Diversity is America’s strength but it isn’t reflected within the structures of power or the systems that fuel them — and that is by design.
Many of the disparities between Black and White communities in the United States are an outgrowth of a long history of discriminatory and dehumanizing laws and policies that have created and exacerbated inequality in almost every sphere of life. These laws and policies are built into the fundamental structures of our societies—our systems of labor, housing, education, voting, healthcare, and justice. They are deeply entrenched, intertwined, and insidious, and they form the foundation for structural racism. | The Impact of Structural Racism on Black Americans – Catalyst Research
Black History Month provides us so much opportunity to immerse ourselves in the astounding lives, work and words of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King Jr, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Ernestine Eckstein, Marsha P. Johnson, John Lewis, Tarana Burke, to name a few, but it must come with actionable steps to end systemic racism and its deliberate destabilization of Black communities. There must be a reckoning with how it impacts American life today. And we must ultimately fulfil Carter G. Woodson’s dream of Black history being taught and celebrated as part of a greater truth about American society.
What are you doing to celebrate and support Black History Month?
Contact the Department of Education (US) or find your Representatives to call for Black History to be taught nationwide at all educational levels as an evidence-based, robust, nuanced and well-resourced year-round core curriculum subject.
Black History Month 2021 – The Oprah Magazine
Digital Black History Events – Smithsonian Magazine (several events available throughout February that are admission free but may require registration)
The 2021 Black History Month Virtual Festival – ASALH (many free events available and open to the public)