Black History Month: Celebrating Diversity and Progress
Black History Month is a time to recognize the achievements of our civil rights heroes while looking toward the future with a vision of equality for all.
By David Moadel
Each February, people in the United States take some time to recognize Black History Month. To that end, we might see some thematic decorations in schools, and libraries might prominently feature books related to African-American history; however, there are still unanswered questions:
- Should we be content to commemorate this vital aspect of our nation's heritage and history for only a month (a short month) and then move on with our lives?
- Do we, as a society, need to take a closer look at the significance of Black History Month?
A deeper examination will reveal that we can, and should, do more to promote the values and purpose of this commemorative month.
Reflecting on the Troubled Past
Even while America has stood as a beacon of freedom throughout its relatively brief history, its treatment of minority populations in former times has certainly not been ideal. From the scourge of slavery, to the struggles of the twentieth century civil rights movement, approaching equality and justice in the United States has been an ongoing process fraught with strife and repression.
It is with this historical backdrop that Carter G. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). Woodson and the ASNLH saw a need to spread knowledge of African-American history and struggles to the citizens and scholars of the United States, so in 1926 they pioneered what was known as "Negro History Week." This week-long celebration has grown into an annual observance known as Black History Month. The month of February is set aside to recognize the imperfections of our nation's past with regard to the treatment of African Americans, and to identify ways to progress toward the egalitarian society that we were meant to be.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
A foundational principle underpinning Black History Month is that in order to move forward, we must recognize the achievements of the heroes from our nation's past. Our nation's narrative should highlight the accomplishments of such historical luminaries as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver, and Rosa Parks. Black History Month serves as a reminder that our history books must reflect not only the achievements of our Founding Fathers, but also of those who fought and sacrificed for the cause of equal opportunity for individuals of all colors and backgrounds. This month is a chance for parents and teachers to teach our young people about our African-American heroes of the past and present—and some of these young people will become the heroes of our nation's future.
Progress toward a Brighter Future
The work begun by Mr. Woodson, Mr. Moorland, and the ASNLH in 1926 continues to leave a powerful legacy to this day. Americans can take pride in the numerous milestones that have been reached since then. However, while American society has made headway in securing equal opportunity and justice for all citizens, the struggle is far from over. There is progress to be made and obstacles to be overcome before we can reach, or even approach, Dr. King's vision of a place where people would only be judged by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin. Black History Month allows us, as a nation, to consider how far we've come and what it took for us to get here. Alas, a month will not be sufficient time to fully appreciate the struggle and the need for greater progress toward Dr. King's vision, but we can at least allow Black History Month to remind us to celebrate diversity and to promote justice and tolerance each and every day.
Connecting to the Classroom
To recognize Black History Month, teachers sometimes put up an extra poster or two in the classroom. However, there are more ways to incorporate Black History Month into the curriculum. One idea is to present lessons specifically featuring prominent events and individuals relating to African-American history and culture. For example, have your students write and illustrate a timeline of major events in African-American history. An alternative strategy would be to allow African-American heroes and history to permeate the curriculum naturally, rather than as a series of isolated lessons. For example, when teaching a unit on poetry analysis, the writings of Langston Hughes would be ideal — both for analysis and inspiration. Your poetry curriculum will be enhanced, while simultaneously honoring an African American author. No matter what the calendar month, take a few moments to see if there is an African American who contributed to the subject your class is studying, and then incorporate his/her work into your curriculum. With this small adjustment, Black History Month can extend long past February.
Incorporate Black History Month into Your Lessons:
Pupils in the middle grades can participate in a slew of engaging lessons pertaining to Black History Month. The lessons cover the origins of Black History Month, along with information on many of the lives and events that shaped American history.
Here, pupils will have the opportunity to create a PowerPoint presentation detailing what they have learned about Black History Month. Significant historical events will be featured in various formats, including text, pictures, and animations.