Commentary By: Dean P. Johnson
Now that we are midway through Black History Month, many classroom teachers across the country are finishing up their lessons on Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglas, and Rosa Parks.
Teachers will soon put aside their slideshows, word searches, and crossword puzzles about Eli Whitney and Harriet Tubman and Jackie Robinson for another year.
We’ll have to wait another whole year before we see television networks and streaming sites highlight movies and documentaries about the contributions African Americans have made to American society.
Black History Month is nearly over, and many of its intentions, like discarded Christmas trees, will sit at the curb of public education.
According to one historian, “the intention of the founders was not and is still not to initiate a week’s or a month’s study of the universal African experience. Instead, the observance portrays the climax of a scientific study of the African experience throughout the year.” Sadly, in many of our public schools, that just isn’t so.
Dr. Carter Woodson, a son of slaves and Harvard graduate, began “Negro History Week” in February, 1926 to advance knowledge of African American history which would, in his words, “build self-esteem among blacks [and] help eliminate prejudice among whites.” The month of February is significant because it is the birthdays of African American institutions such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Eubie Blake, NAACP, and the first Pan African Congress. As a matter of fact, the first African American Senator, Hiram Revels, was inaugurated in February, 1870.
Dr. Woodson stressed the importance of knowing African American history in a speech at Hampton Institute in 1921: “We have a wonderful history behind us. If you are unable to demonstrate to the world that you have this record, the world will say to you, ‘You are not worthy to enjoy the blessings of democracy or anything else’.“
In 1976 “Negro History Week” was expanded to Black History Month.
The problem is that some schools use Black History Month as an excuse to focus on African American history solely in February. Further, much of the history that is taught is what African Americans have done within and in the context of white culture — arts, politics, civil rights. What African descendants have done for the advancement of their own culture and for the world as a whole is still essentially ignored in many public schools.
I have worked in school districts where I was told by supervisors to have special lessons about African Americans during the month of February. Yet no one asked or ensured my lesson plans included the contributions of African Americans during any other month.
African American history and experience needs to be fully integrated throughout all our schools’ curriculums — not just history — if we ever want understanding among cultures. Moreover, these curriculums must not contain subtle racist slants such as African Americans being “given” civil rights. Nothing was ever given. It was fought for and earned.
It’s not just the schools who are missing the mark. Black History Month is to advertisers of African American books and films and shows as Memorial Day is to sellers of hot-dogs and hamburgers and potato salad.
Black History Month is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate a culture, to learn more of our world and to find commonalities among all people. It is important, nay, vital, for all our schools, however, to include Black history throughout the entire school year.
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