After 25 years as an educator, I finally teach in a school with substantial African American student representation. These young adults are wonderfully confident in expecting their yearly dose of African-American history in February for African-American History Month. I started teaching in January, mid-year, and I was caught off guard by this polite but firm expectation. You can get through a lot of February’s without being called out by Jewish, Yupik Eskimo, or Anglo-European students on how much African-American history you are teaching. I was knee deep in unit planning to try to wow a new supervisor and school, and this was not in the plan. But I honored the request anyway, as though I had planned to do so all along. I got through it and blocked out the lack of continuity that I usually take pride in avoiding.
My goal for this year, though, is different. My goal is not to teach a unit for February African-American History Month again. My goal is to make the students think its February in August all the way through May. African-American history is not a footnote. It’s not 1/9 of anything. It’s not a token obligation to appease 15% of our population.
The magnitude, depth, and relevance of this subject matter takes far more than a month, and to insinuate otherwise sends a faulty message as though African-American history is a piece of pie that can be sliced up and chewed upon for a time before moving on to the next pieces, the other more uniform pieces. To endure the pie metaphor a little further, the African-American story would be the sugar and the eggs, whose impact on the entire pie cannot be undone or easily extrapolated, nor should it be, at least not for one month a year.
We have nothing to fear by scratching past the surface and taking a hard painful look at the truth. We owe it to all students to let them process, name, hold their own country accountable for, and create change from the acknowledgement of the blood on our hands and skeletons in our closet, as a culture. We owe it to white students and students of color, for different reasons, but the final result for both is freedom and liberation to move forward toward something better for their children.
An African-American History Month runs the risk of treating an integral part of our lives as though it can be studied in isolation. Teachers and texts treat the history of slavery in a similar way, usually placed right before we study the Civil War even though people lived it, wrote about it, endured it, rebelled against it ever since 1619 in the U.S. and since 1497 in the Americas. Moreover, people endured its legacy from 1865 to the present day. The message, though, is that this peculiar albeit shameful institution was here for a time, until Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and a whole bunch of white Union soldiers saved the day, culminating with the Emancipation Proclamation. End of story. Now to the Industrial Revolution.
We all need to know so much more, and I do not use the words “all” or “need” lightly. We all need to know, understand, and appreciate the impact of the slave trade- on America and Africa. We need to know, understand, and appreciate the Jim Crow period. We need to honor that part of the American ethos that exists due solely to African-American influences.
We need to take the time to be profoundly inspired by the unbelievable heroes, named and unnamed, who organized, rebelled, resisted, disobeyed, suffered, spoke up, created change, and offered hope for the redemption of all of us. We “all” stand on the shoulders of these giants that most of us don’t even know about. A superficial tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. just doesn’t cut it; I know he would agree.
We need to know about the pseudo-science ideologies of eugenics and social Darwinism that poisoned European and American culture, whose ideas are intertwined with those of nationalist capitalism that is defining the rules that are shaping globalization today.
We need to know that race doesn’t exist but racism does. We need to know that before the invention of racism and race became tools of the elite to divide and conquer the poor and oppressed, there are countless cases in human history where all different colored people came together to work, live, befriend, marry, organize and love. And there are cases that manage today in spite of the lie of racism.
We need to know that racism is unnatural, unholy, and we are responsible for its continued existence. We need to teach our kids all these things and so much more.
The African-American story is a living breathing continuous thread throughout the fabric of the American, African and human story. One month isn’t near enough time to touch on the stories that need to be told in African-American History.
To insinuate that it is, is a travesty, and we all lose what has become an essential part of our past and present existence.
Tragically, a February African-American History Month appears to be a necessary evil to remind and to force our schools and culture to at least acknowledge something that should not need reminding and should not need to be forced. But I challenge schools and especially history teachers to make that necessary evil obsolete by giving the year round attention that African-American history deserves.
Make them think it’s February all year! That’s my goal this year.