5 Ways to Change How We Celebrate Black History Month

On average, American schoolchildren will be taught only one or two lessons on black history in public schools. That’s it, according to a 2015 report from the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

And most adults don’t fare better. In fact, no one seems to learn much about black history unless they actively seek this knowledge. Even during the month devoted to black history, society frequently glosses over and erases certain stories and voices.

As many black leaders have argued, we need to rethink how we celebrate Black History Month. Here’s how.

1. Move beyond slavery

Many lessons about black history start and end with slavery. However, as activist and columnist Shaun King noted a few years ago, “246 years of American slavery represent less than 1 percent of known black history from around the world.”

Black people shouldn’t just be known for suffering. King and his wife, who is a teacher, favor more context in teaching during Black History Month.

“We have started Black History Month off in pre-historic South Africa or in early African Kingdoms to show the true depth and breadth and beauty of blackness,” King wrote in the New York Daily News, “or we start off in present day and work ourselves backwards, introducing children first to healthy, relevant, modern examples of black leaders before we move through slavery then back to Africa.”

2. Look beyond common narratives

Some civil rights leaders have reached mythical status. We glom onto one or two of their accomplishments and forget who they were in context. Take Rosa Parks, who did a lot more for the movement than refuse to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.

Parks was a longtime advocate for voting rights, and she actively worked for justice surrounding interracial sexual violence.

We need to recognize when people’s accomplishments are even greater than advertised.

3. Highlight hidden heroes

At the same time, we should be aware of whom we’re forgetting when we elevate a select few individuals over others.

Claudette Colvin refused to move to the back of a bus nine months before Parks. But being a poor, pregnant teenager didn’t fit the image the movement wanted to portray.

“In its current state, Black History Month is sanitized, it’s diluted, it’s basically decoration that no one really cares much about because there’s no special finesse or emphasis on how history is analyzed,” BlackMillennials.com editor Arielle Newton told PBS. “We’re not really fleshing out what it means to be black in America.”

Our tellings of history forget too many trailblazers, especially when they don’t fit the stereotypical mold of a “hero.”

The second best time to learn these names is now. Searching Twitter for the hashtag #BlackHistoryYouDidntLearnInSchool is a good place to start. We should also ask our schools teach about more diverse black icons, such as those who were LGBTQ, women and impoverished.

4. Keep stories in context

Like all history, black history is complex. We have to go beyond celebrating a few historical figures to view the past in context.

What British historian and broadcaster David Olusoga wrote in The Guardian holds true in the U.S., as well:

[Black history] is a centuries-long epic of trade, mutual fascination, inter-marriage, exploitation, exoticism, eroticism, confusion, misunderstanding and tragedy; a history that takes place on three continents, and which has permanently reshaped the demography of Britain and much of the world. Black British history is our joint history and it should be much more than the search for and the defense of black heroes.

5. Look forward

History is constantly being created. We can’t pay lip service to a select few heroes, and then disregard modern realities black Americans face.

Support movements like Black Lives Matter. Participate in celebrations for Black Futures Month – also in February. Embrace black history all year long.

Photo Credit: Chris Benson/Unsplash

41 comments

Mike R
Mike R3 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R3 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R3 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R3 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R3 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R3 months ago

Thanks

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Sophie M
Sophie L4 months ago

thank you

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Stephanie s
Stephanie s4 months ago

Thank you

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RONALD Walker
RONALD Walker4 months ago

It has been slow yet more and more information is coming to light as each year past. So many new and very important facts are coming out and as the years past, we have so much more to understand what has happened in the slave trade and the people that live as slaves. All because of Black History Month! Please don't discount what Black History Month has not done. The seed was planted and it will grow like a Redwood tree and rise to 250 feet tall and love by all! Please read "When I was a slave" this month! It will only take a few hours!!!

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Lesa D
Lesa D4 months ago

thank you Emily...

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