I have an issue with Black History Month.
I have written about how everything Black happens in February and is forgotten for the rest of the year.
I have written about “firsts” and what they say about how far we have (and haven’t) come.
And last year I wrote about the lessons we could learn from history (if we talked about them) to inform a better future.
Since then I’ve come to also loathe the month because the actual focus of Black History Month is problematic. It’s something that has come to my attention largely because of how schools seem to approach the month.
Black History Month in Schools
Before I go on, let me say that I did this when I was a teacher 20 years ago. And that I recognize that teachers don’t get a lot of professional development around Black History. We tend to teach what we know. And given the ages of teachers, I’ll venture a guess that what they learned about Black History was…inadequate.
I have a daughter in kindergarten.
Last year she learned about Rosa Parks.
“You have to stand up for yourself, like Rosa Parks,” she told me one day. I was thankful that her teachers seemed to be doing a great job of taking the big lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, and making them applicable to a (then) 4-year-old’s life. It is possible to do this, and it’s important. Children are smarter than we think and they already know about inequity and unfairness from their experiences on the playground.
But then my daughter’s friend got on the streetcar with his Dad and said he didn’t want to sit in the back with all the Black people (he and his Dad are Black). Sigh.
Slavery and the Civil Rights Movement
Most of the Black History curriculum – and events – focus on slavery and civil rights.
Black History Month started because there was NO Black history being shared, and Black people weren’t part of the curriculum etc. So it deserves a check mark for recognizing and filling a gap.
I also believe we have to talk about what happened.
Slavery was horrific, and the Civil Rights Movement is an important part of the story of what it means to be Black in North America. Knowing all of this history provides a context to what is happening today (systemic racism, Black Lives Matter…)
What else is there?
There is a lot about slavery to civil rights in America (and Canada) that we conveniently don’t hear about.
The TV sitcom Blackish did a great episode about the economic benefit the USA has reaped from slave labour. If you can find the full episode, it’s worth watching. If you can’t, there are a few key educational clips here.
If we’re going to focus on slavery and civil rights, then we should tell a fuller story.
It’s interesting that we don’t talk about the Slave trade – that white people arrived on the shores of Africa to steal Black people from their communities, shackled them, put them in the belly of boats in deplorable conditions where most of them died, and brought them to North America to work as slaves for the gain of industry and white people. It changes the story, doesn’t it?
If you like to read, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration in the USA of Blacks from the South to the supposedly “free” north.
There is so much more to being Black…
There is much, much more to being Black.
We need to be celebrating and educating about that.
What about the fact that the continent of Africa has thousands of years of history which includes the pioneering of basic arithmetic, mining and fishing – to name a few. (Oh, and the pyramids!)
Here are a few sites with interesting facts – facts we don’t hear about or read about often.
Ask a question. Pay attention.
Ask yourself why we don’t hear these stories.
Then look around and see the narrative we are surrounded with daily about Black people.
And the skewed narrative we hear and learn about in the month that is supposed to raise our awareness about Black history.
We must do better.