Students Don't Just Study Black History, They Are Black History

Feb 1, 2021 12:00:00 AM


*Mic check* (Ahem).

Educators: Are you aware that this month is Black History Month? Have you asked your students, specifically your Black students, what they’d like to see and/or do for Black History Month? Or, do you plan on doing the least; that is reading brief bios of famous Black people during morning announcements, putting posters on the walls of the school and/or hosting pot luck with staff, students and families—whereby Black people are in charge of cooking the food (doing the work as usual)?

This year, Black History Month will take place on the backdrop of an insurrection, which was an attempt at installing white rule and erasing the will of a multiracial/multicultural electorate—led by the activism of Black women.

While the events of January 6, 2021 were tragic and traumatizing, educators have an opportunity to provide students quality learning opportunities that infuse Black history into their content—whereby teaching Black history isn’t fitting a square peg in a round hole.

As educators, we have a unique opportunity to connect the dots between the history of violent white mobs that terrorize the country based on lies (which, essentially is what racism is based on) to the fight for Black liberation. In short, [pullquote position="right"]we can fight the power—right in our classrooms.[/pullquote]

To put it in context for educators, “the power” is made up of politicians who denounce the truth of the 1619 Project in favor of a whitewashed history that conveniently omits the starring role white supremacy played in our nation’s founding and development.

Power is also textbook publishers who omit racism,  “America’s original sin and birth defect,” from their textbooks that school districts purchase nationwide. Power is also your own superintendent, curriculum supervisors and instructional coaches who choose to teach—both teachers and students—with whitewashed and culturally incompetent curricula and agendas.

Moving forward, you have the power to fight against that with your teaching and it doesn’t matter what content area you teach. Actually, you have always had that power. Will you use your power for good?

In 1989, Public Enemy released the politically charged anthem Fight the Power. In the song, Chuck D said that America’s “got to give us what we want, gotta give us what we need.” You must take that stance with your students—[pullquote]give them what they want and give them what they need … not just during Black History Month, but all year around.[/pullquote]

What Do Students Want and Need?

Here’s how you give students what they want … ask them what they want.

Ask students in context, of course. However, rather than simply implementing Black History Month celebrations and memorials yourself, where you can control what history and themes to highlight, ask students what they’d like to see and do. You may be shocked to find out that students have an idea for what they want to have happen surrounding Black History Month.

Our students have their own ideas of and meanings for Black history that don’t start and end with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (with all due respect to Dr. King). They include histories of forgotten or unknown people and moments in their lives and in their communities that include artists, entrepreneurs and activists.

History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals. 

James Baldwin

They include their own histories whereby they themselves are walking Black history with every petition to create a Black student union or a Black history class, every college acceptance letter whereby they are the first in their families to attend college, every speech given to address racism and white supremacy that has impacted their school. [pullquote position="right"]Educators must recognize that students don’t just study Black history, but they are Black history.[/pullquote] It is our job to nurture and cultivate their genius; in the words of Gholdy Muhammad. Therefore, educators must give students what they need.

Here’s how…

Educators must understand the why and the how is just as important as the who and the what. Put another way, teaching for the sake of students memorizing fact-based information is about who, what, where and when. However, teaching to empower is about the why and the how.

Black history is American history and now, more than ever, is the time to explore with students why our nation is the way it is and how we arrived at this current point—and how to make necessary course corrections … a path towards justice.

  • We can learn in history classes with instruction on enslavement, racial capitalism, reconstruction, Jim Crow and mass incarceration.
  • We can learn in literature class when we read and instruct from firsthand accounts and fiction written by oppressed voices.
  • We can learn in science classes with instruction on how chemical reactions in our bodies due to racial stress and trauma elicit responses to protect ourselves in both healthy and unhealthy ways.
  • We can learn in math classes with instruction on the utilization of math principles to crystallize the destructive nature of capitalism or the harsh realities of poverty.

We must also teach the integral part that Black communities played in building America—through science and math, art and ingenuity, literature and resiliency. Inventors, artists, leaders, and freedom fighters held America accountable, transformed the systems, and continue to broaden the path for all citizens through their work.

[pullquote]We must also provide students with the spaces to process racial trauma they’ve experienced both inside and outside of schools.[/pullquote] We often think of the trauma students experience in their lives, particularly Black children, based on their life circumstances; circumstances that can be traced by to racism of some kind. Yet we fail to account for the racial trauma Black students, and other students of color, experience in schools.

Educational environments that lack racial and ethnic diversity, within teaching an administrative staff as well, in general, are more likely to promote negative experiences and interactions for underrepresented students. Studies show that experiences of racism and racial discrimination are associated with experiences of posttraumatic stress symptoms.

Educators must offer students the support of mental health professionals and counselors to help them navigate traumatic and triggering events, such as what happened on January 6,2021. Furthermore, educators take tangible action to reduce triggers of racial trauma; including hiring additional Black and Latinx educators, inserting culturally responsive resources within classroom content, removing police officers from school buildings and removing systemically racist policies.

These are good places to start—not finish.

Black History Month is a good time for educators to engage students in celebrating the past accomplishments of Black people in America. This year, educators should take Black History Month as an opportunity to engage students and families in a process for envisioning a future, rooted in the Black radical tradition; disrupting social, political, economic, and cultural norms, originating in anticolonial and antislavery efforts, in a 2ist-century context.

Educators, this Black History Month, don’t be criminal. Do more than the status quo—fight the power.

This post originally appeared on Philly's 7th Ward.

Rann Miller

Rann Miller is a director of a federally funded after-school and summer program in southern New Jersey. He spent six years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. Rann is the creator, writer and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. His writing on race and urban education has appeared in  SalonAlterNet, and the  Progressive, where he is an education fellow.

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