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Teaching African American History: Do We Still Need a Black History Month?

Feb 9 2010

During an interview on 60 Minutes few years ago, actor Morgan Freeman stated that Black History Month is no longer necessary. "Black history is American history," he told the interviewer. He sparked a debate about whether focusing on special groups long left out of the historical narrative backfires—whether it is actually more isolating than it is inclusive.

Freeman's concern wasn't new. Since the beginning of Negro History Week in 1926, at different times in the last century and for different reasons, people of all races have contested the need for and the importance of paying special attention to Black history.

Carter Woodson (M.A., University of Chicago, 1908, Ph.D., Harvard University, 1912) founded Negro History Week in 1926—changed in 1976 to Black History Month, a move initiated by the Association for the Study of African American Life an History (ASALH).

Woodson began documenting the historic record of Black Americans.

When Woodson began his academic career, African Americans were barely included in the national narrative, and errors of fact and blatantly racist perspectives generally characterized what was included. Determined "that the world see the Negro as a participant rather than as a lay figure in history," Woodson legitimized and established the field in historical scholarship. He initiated scholarly inquiry into the role of African Americans in our history, trained scholars, defined research methods and standards, founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, started the Journal of Negro History in 1916 (now the Journal of African American History). Woodson emphasized agency. He was not "primarily concerned with what was being done to and for the Negro [throughout history] but with what the Negro was thinking, feeling, attempting, and doing himself."

The fact is, Black History Month is likely here to stay—as are periods of special focus on other groups who are latecomers to the history books including women, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Pacific Americans. And the best teaching already does what both Carter Woodson and Morgan Freeman believed Black History Month should do—includes African American history as a continuing thread in the historical narrative rather than as a boxed-off unit.

Black History Month relates the past to the racial realities of the present.

Historians, journalists, and teachers writing on the History News Network have commented on the meaning, the pros and the cons of Black History Month. Journalist Afi-Odelia Scruggs talks about a lesson plan that brings the history of voting rights into the present day for 5th and 6th graders. Duke University sociology professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva points out that Americans need Black History Month to "not only acknowledge the real struggles and conflict of the Civil Rights era, but face up to the racial realities of today." But in 2007, a student at the University of Illinois still believed that Carter Woodson wouldn't like what Black History Month has become. "February has become the month to focus on a "handful" of African-Americans, while ignoring them the rest of the year, and to brainwash us into thinking that race relations in this country have become hunky-dory."

Teaching Resources

Start looking for lesson plans and materials specific to African American history in the largest libraries and museums, and there's a good chance you'll never emerge.

Smithsonian Education suggests teaching resources that approach African American history through cultural heritage, through music, artifacts, and other objects. Take your students on a Virtual Heritage Tour, download object-based lesson plans focusing on K-6 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and listen to audio files of Voices of Struggle and the importance of the African American spoken word. .

The National Park Service offers lesson plans for Teaching with Historic Places. Each lesson plan includes maps, readings, visual images and activities.

And New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture offers extensive digital resources from a wealth of online exhibitions to digitized books and images to audio visual resources.

In the Library of Congress, the African America Odyssey collections offer more than 240 books, government documents, manuscripts, maps, musical scores, plays, films, and recordings. Materials cover black America's quest for political, social, and economic equality from slavery through the mid-20th century.

And, of course, here at teachinghistory.org, a simple search for black history or for African American history will lead you to dozens of resources from state standards to websites, online lectures, lesson plans, and more.

Highlighting the successes

Highlighting the successes and accomplishments of a group of people in one month subliminally sends the message that these accomplishments and successes are not the norm - they stand out; and therefore, should be celebrated or awarded. When these celebrations are based on skin color or ethnicity, the message being sent is more hurtful than helpful. This type of education is what I like to call "Hamster and Wheel Education;" we are running on this wheel, spinning all this "Knowledge," and inevitably going no where and definitely not moving forward. Therefore, I am in complete agreement with Morgan Freeman and applaud him for taking a stand on this issue.

I understand the arguments for keeping a Black History Month, and for that matter, an Hispanic Heritage Month, and so on and so on. However, in every story there are multiple players, and therefore, multiple stories within a story. This being said, there are going to be stories on multiple perspectives, based on gender, age, ethnicity, education, social class. I believe it is our responsibility to
teach our students through the various perspectives not ignoring nor highlighting any group. In essence, deliver the facts and teach them how to analyze the facts and draw conclusions, how to empathize, and how to determine cause and effect relationships.

Jessica Cruz

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