Every February, K-12 schools across America scurry around making preparations for Black History Month. Elementary school kids learn about George Washington Carver and his peanuts, middle school students read MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and high schoolers spend a half hour or so on some Maya Angelou poems in English class. There might be a Civil Rights documentary thrown in, just to mix things up. At the end of the month, the decorations and xeroxed copies of noble-sounding black histories are stuffed into the supply closet until next year.
I know it’s not this way at every school, but it is at a lot of them.
There are many things that baffle me about Donald Trump, but one of the main ones is that he consistently gets away with saying things that make absolutely no sense, or have absolutely no basis in truth. Examples of this abound and it would be impossible to list them all here (although I’m sure someone has, or at least hope someone has), but to name two, I about spit my drink out when I read his comments about Frederick Douglass at a Black History event earlier this month, and I got incredibly angry when he had the audacity to be disrespectful towards John Lewis in January, before Trump even took office.
At the Black History event, he talked about Douglass in a vague yet thoroughly bizarre way where, among other things, he seemed to think Douglass is still alive. (For the record, Douglass died in 1895.) For the second, he attacked Lewis on twitter, calling Lewis “all talk, no action.” It is galling to think that he would even dare to say such a thing to someone who has a long history of activism and civil service (action and activism have the same root, in case Trump isn’t aware), including marching beside MLK Jr., being physically assaulted, literally risking his life and watching as others were murdered for the same cause, and repeatedly arrested. It’s even more galling to think of Trump, who was handed his wealth from the time he was born, to accuse Lewis, whose parents were sharecroppers, of not taking action.
Each time, I wondered to myself: How does he get away with this? And then I realized… he gets away with it because a lot of people really have no idea who Frederick Douglass and John Lewis are, any more than Trump does.
The way we teach black history, black contributions, black lives to our children is extremely limited and extremely whitewashed. We don’t do it much to begin with, and we tend to present the rose-colored glasses version anyway; we exhort MLK for his peaceful methods but don’t talk about how hated he was by white people at the time, how he was spied on by the FBI, and how his peaceful methods got him killed. We celebrate Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” poem but don’t talk about how ownership, figuratively and literally, of black women’s bodies is a dark and ongoing part of our social and political narrative.
And we tend to teach race from a white perspective. When I was teaching 11th grade English and AP literature in North Carolina, I got pushback from parents on teaching Frederick Douglass and Toni Morrison; in both cases, the parents suggested I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn instead– in one instance, it was literally phrased to me in an email, “If you have to teach a race book, why don’t you teach Huck Finn?” I explained that I *do* teach Huck Finn in 11th grade, in tandem with Frederick Douglass, but that it’s also important to teach books that are, you know, written by black people, not just about them. (And let’s not even touch the problematic usage of the term “race book” in the email. The parent ended up removing their son from my class.)
The argument was that the Douglass memoir was too violent– because it is okay to portray slaves as bumbling but good-hearted fools in Huck Finn, but not to show the actual, horrible reality of slavery written by a slave himself.
The argument against Song of Solomon was that the language was too rough– because it’s okay to read the n-word 219 times in Huck Finn but 18-year-olds can’t handle reading the f-bomb a handful of times.
What I’m saying is, we have to do better. We can’t just trot out the Harriet Tubman picture books once a year in February and read them to squirming groups of third graders during story time; we can’t just use the same texts like the “I Have A Dream” speech and Huck Finn over and over and over, until the students are so freaking bored that they want to bash their brains out, all while learning a very narrow slice of black history. We can’t have Martin Luther King Jr. and Mark Twain (!!!) represent all black experience; we can’t just mention that the Founding Fathers owned slaves in a sidebar of a history textbook and ignore it the rest of the time while telling our own history. America was literally built on the back of unpaid black labor; you can’t tell me that’s not important.
We need to teach black history alongside white history throughout the year, not just in 28 days. We need to assign books, essays, and poems by black writers who talk about their own experience, not white writers who talk about the black experience for them. We need to look at more modern black history in context and realize that MLK is not the only prominent black person from the last 100 years.
We need to educate citizens who know who Frederick Douglass is– and Phyllis Wheatley and Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer and Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis and thousands of other names worth knowing– and can call bullshit when a president attacks a preeminent civil rights leader on twitter.
Black History Month is a starting point but it’s not enough. It’s never been enough, and each one of us needs to do our duty as educators to work a wider view of black history into our curricula throughout the year. As tempting as it is to say that it’s more important than ever, the truth is that it’s always been important, but now is the time to buckle down and make it happen.