Last year as February drew to a close, a colleague approached me and asked, "So what did you do for Black History Month?" With little time between passing periods for a detailed response, I replied, "We should meet up and discuss this later if you're really interested." Eventually we did sit down and I shared essentially this:
I don't like "Black History Month." The teaching of African American history isn't problematic at all, it's the separateness, the giving the topic it's own month that rings hollow for me. Why would anyone seek to make "Black History" separate from the larger historical narrative? Isn't the history of African Americans a crucial, integral thread that's interwoven throughout the tapestry of our nation's story and shouldn't it be taught that way? Too often I've seen "Black History Month" used to conjure up the African American "All-Stars" of the textbook (Fredrick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., etc.) for the purpose of covering the same old ground without deepening or extending the conversation in any way. Yes, our history is full of African American "heroes" but somehow the fixation is always on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, as if there were nothing more to the history or experience of African Americans in our country. Of course those are important topics to cover, but those can't be the only ones. In the spirit of true historical inquiry, why don't we explore the topic of "Blackness?" How is it that race became its own category, its own distinction, and had the power to determine outcomes for a person's life chances in this country?
To start this conversation with students, I use four readings from the Race and Membership in American History resource book, in particular the ones titled "Who is Human?","Who is Equal?", ""Ranking Humankind", and "Science and Prejudice." If you've never explored the construction of race from the pseudo-scientific vantage point from which it was built, I absolutely recommend these four articles. Students are quick to point out the inconsistency of the "science" and can easily see the relationship between the "scientific fact" of the 1800s to the racial stereotypes and assumptions of contemporary society. Another great resource to use is the documentary produced by PBS called Race: the Power of an Illusion. This three-part series on the construction, implication, and repercussions of race in the U.S. is a powerful conversation starter and excellent tool for exploring this little discussed aspect of American history. My favorite episode to use with students is Episode 3 entitled "The House We Live In" The entire documentary can be found on Youtube (or borrowed from Facing History for Facing History teachers), the transcripts for each episode can be found on California Newsreel, and the class discussion/study guide can be found on PBS.org
It's now the end of February, and yes, the end of "Black History Month" too. But let's keep the conversation going, because it's not their history, it's our history. and maybe, just maybe, our country won't need a designated month to remind us of that fact.