I’m channeling the spirit of Dr. Chris Emdin when I say that this piece is specifically for the white folx and the rest of y’all too. It’s Black History Month, and I figure it’s time I give my two cents about my current feelings on the annual celebration.
When Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926, he didn’t envision the week to be limited to just a performative celebration of Black excellence. In fact, his ultimate vision was for the week to serve as a stepping stone towards liberation and humanity for all Black people—a vision that Black folx are still fighting so hard to make a reality almost a century later. When Woodson states in his classic book, “The Mis-Education of the Negro” that “the oppressor has always indoctrinated the weak with his interpretation of the crimes of the strong,” that alone should let us know Black History Month is also a learning opportunity for our students to critically analyze America’s ongoing romance with anti-Blackness and white supremacy.
For the white teachers reading this, please understand that you’re doing your students a disservice if you selfishly use Black History Month as a platform to center your fragility and prioritize your comfort. This isn’t about keeping it safe and “cute” by maintaining the problematic annual tradition of centering the regurgitated, romanticized, “feel good” post-racial narratives of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the other usual suspects. This is about de-centering yourself to prioritize the lived experiences and overall humanity of your Black students sitting in your classroom. If you’re going to go all-in on Black History Month, let’s go all-in.
If You're Going to Celebrate Black History Month, Go All-In
In case you’re wondering what I mean by “going all in,” I would like for you to consider these recent events and take some time to process how these incidents directly impact your Black students:
Members of the U.S. Senate are patting themselves on the back for commemorating Emmett and Mamie Till with the Congressional Gold Medal all while innocent young Black males are still being murdered, primarily by racist white folx at alarming rates. What’s wrong with that picture?
Renowned writer Toni Morrison’s classic books, "Song of Solomon" and "The Bluest Eye," are two of the most banned books across many school systems in America. Sadly, she’s not the only one. There are a significant number of legendary and contemporary Black authors whose books are consistently appearing on banned book lists across many school districts in America. So basically, we’re paying homage to some of the greatest literary figures in American history by banning their classic works that authentically captured the full spectrum of the Black human condition in America? Sounds very American to me.
Award-winning journalist and Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project sparked so much outrage with the political right and other pundits that the initiative has not only been banned from schools across several red states but it also blocked her from earning tenure at her former employer, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. What more has to be pointed out to convince folx of the intersectional plight of Black women in America?
At a recent White House press briefing, Senator Mitch McConnell stated that “Black Americans are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans” in response to a journalist’s question regarding his opposition to the Voting Rights Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. His opposition to the legislation is one thing, but I’m particularly interested in the language he used in his response. Why are Black Americans separate from Americans? And in his mind, what is the criteria for being an American? Once again, these are rhetorical questions that are worth posing to the masses. I can’t possibly be the only one getting strong Jim Crow vibes from the Senator’s response.
It’s unfortunate that Black History Month has become nothing more than an annual celebration that has been relegated to an intolerable outpouring of white guilt over the generational injustices that continue to dehumanize, marginalize, and oppress Black folx all across the African diaspora. If you’re that teacher who treats Black History Month like the ugly Christmas sweater you wear every December, only to hang it up to collect mothballs over the other eleven months of the calendar year, that’s a red flag. If white guilt is the main motivation of your engagement with Black History Month, that’s another red flag. The absolution of guilt is a self-serving practice that does absolutely nothing to dismantle the very systems, policies, and practices that continue to marginalize your Black students. Let’s get real about the ugliness of America’s historical relationship with the Black community.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that students shouldn’t celebrate and learn about the revolutionary Black leaders who sacrificed their lives and were assassinated for their unapologetic activism against racism, hate, and bigotry. As I’ve stated in a previous piece about counterstorytelling, it’s imperative for Black students to know the history of their people so they can aspire to achieve the greatness of their ancestors and learn the full truth about who they are, as well as how they are viewed by others.
The humanization of Black students should never be a one-month affair. Rather, it must extend beyond the classroom and into the policies that we support, which leads me to this point. You can’t celebrate Black History Month with your students and advocate for the banning of critical race theory at the same time. It’s just not possible. That perspective is alarmingly flawed which means that your teaching of Black History will be equally as flawed.
And speaking of critical race theory, how are we still debating over the alleged teaching of it in schools when it provides us with the most logically sound explanation as to why Black History Month and other cultural heritage months even exist in the first place? Yes, this is a rhetorical question but it’s still worth posing to the masses.
As I step off my soapbox, I’d like to leave you with these final questions:
What do you believe is the function of Black History Month in relation to America’s complicated historical relationship with the Black community?
Considering the current racial climate in our nation, how will you approach this Black History Month differently from previous school years?
How will you ensure that the humanity of your Black students continues to be prioritized beyond February 28th?
Don’t respond too quickly. It’s been time for y'all to re-examine your engagement with Black History Month, so really give yourself the proper time and space to process these questions. Your students deserve that much.
Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the ...