News flash: We have been celebrating Black History Month all wrong.
Black History Month (originally "Negro History Week") was started by Carter G. Woodson in 1915. He had a very simple theory to promote the liberation and success of Black people: Black history has to be taught without centering Whiteness. That is why Woodson created his own teaching tool, “The Negro History Bulletin,” for children to learn about Black history. I have more than ten of these original magazines, and they are fantastic! Here’s a sample:
Woodson’s idea was to teach Black folks, especially Black children, about the achievements of Black civilizations and Black people, independent of Europe or White people. Woodson was critical of all people who internalized White supremacy, both White folks and Black folks. In his critically-acclaimed book, "The Miseducation of the Negro," Woodson blasts “educated Black folks” for their role in perpetuating racism because of their own miseducation.
Woodson argued that true education must be honest about where you have been, where you are and where you can go. For the past 400 years, “education” for Black people in America has been about our relationship to Europe, starting with slavery.
Black History, for and by Black folks, has successes independent of Europe—and it does not begin with slavery.
What Should Black History Month Celebrate?
To celebrate Black History Month as Woodson intended, we have to start with Africa.
Carter G. Woodson’s intention in creating "Negro History Week" (now Black History Month) was to teach Black students that they come from powerful, important civilizations in Africa. Woodson believed that in order for Black folks to be successful—to support, and develop our communities, our cultures, and our own countries—we have to know that we have already done all those things. We have already had successful Black civilizations that rival those of Europe and Asia. Black History has to be about our contributions to world history.
Because all of us have been educated from a Eurocentric perspective, even knowing the basics of African history takes work. But here are some tips for where to start:
Nile Valley: The oldest, longest, most documented civilization is that of Egypt and the Nile Valley. Too many Black students have no idea that Egypt and the Nile Valley civilizations were Black civilizations. Through its 5000-year-old history, Egypt has been colonized and conquered by different groups—but for the first 2800 years, it was Black. Times differ but most agree Arab and Europeans arrived in Egypt around 500 B.C.E. and 600 A.D. Prior to that, the civilizations of Kemet, Nubia and Kush (Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan) were Black. All students must know that these Nile Valley civilizations were created, maintained and ruled by Black folks.
African Kingdoms and Civilizations: Black students must understand the glories of the West African civilizations before Europeans or Arabs came to the continent. The Ghana Kingdom, Mali Empire, Ashanti Empire, and so many other African civilizations have rich cultures and histories that our students need to know.
Here is a partial list of African kingdoms and civilizations that you can research and teach to your students:
Celebrate Achievements of Africa: Henry Louis Gates hosts a wonderful documentary on the achievements of African civilizations. In it, he shares that Africans were the first of the world’s peoples to have written language, music, iron, math, science, astronomy, religion, spirituality and governments. You can get a taste of the series through this radio interview.
The Geography and Resources of Africa: Black students need to know the true size of Africa. Rather than merely reinforcing images of African poverty, Black students also need to know about the continent’s wealth of resources. Students can learn about oil production, diamonds, and even coltan, a metallic ore that can be refined into a key component of electronic devices of all kinds, from electric cars to cell phones. Africa’s Great Lakes region is the world’s largest producer of coltan.
While Black folks have done great things in America and in Europe, these individuals and their stories are not central to the purpose of Black History Month.
Black History Month is not about celebrating the successes of Black folks achieving status in White institutions and organizations. Our Black children need to know our great Black history of civilizations, science, government, religion and technology.
There are many wonderful “first” stories about Black folks in the United States, but that is American history, NOT Black history. Jackie Robinson, Misty Copeland and Barack Obama made great contributions to American history, but Black History Month is not the time to focus on their “firsts.” The “first Black person” to participate in something from which they were previously banned because of racism isn’t a Black success. Rather, it is an example of White racism. All of these “firsts” should be celebrated and taught in school as American History, not Black History. Here’s why: Once Black students understand the 4000-year-old success of Blacks on the continent of Africa, then we talk about slavery and colonization.
It is important that we don’t teach Black students to idolize the folks and systems who oppressed Black people.
Our ancestors succeeded in the Americas in spite of White people, not because of them. In spite of being enslaved, discriminated against, beaten, raped, and being told that we were not human, our ancestors brought the culture of Africa—the music, science, inventions, culture and our resilience—to “the New World.”
Enslaved Black folks are largely responsible for American music, American culture and much of American’s wealth. And, again, while it is great that we contributed so much to America, being the first Black American baseball player, ballerina, president, isn’t Black history; it is American history.
It is great to celebrate W.E.B. DuBois, but it is even more important—in fact, foundational—that Black students know about the schools in ancient Egypt that informed the ancient Greeks and Romans.
It is nice to know that Meghan Markle is the first Black royal in England, but it is more important that Black students know the names of the important royal kingdoms and families in Africa: Yaa Ashanti, Sundiata, Askia the Great, Queen Candace and Mansa Musa of Mali, who is still considered to be the richest person in the history of the world.
Blackness is neither worse or better than White culture.
And, Blackness is beautiful in its own right.
Our speech isn’t bad, it's different.
Our hair isn’t bad, it's different.
Our culture isn’t bad, it is different.
So, I ask you to reflect on the words and intentions of Carter G. Woodson when he conceptualized Black History Month, and consider how to bring them to life in American schools today.
ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.
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