Why We Still Need Black History Month

A few years ago, I read some articles arguing against the celebration of Black History Month. The argument went something like this: “Dedicating a month to the history of a people based on race is itself racist. Equality means that we should teach American history as a whole because we are all American.” I take issue with this argument for several reasons.

First, of course it would be wonderful if Black history was taught in an integrated way throughout the school year. Unfortunately, that isn’t the reality in U.S. schools. Common Core provides an Appendix B with exemplar texts that many schools use as a curriculum. 69 of 88 authors represented are White, and ALL K-3 stories are told from a White perspective. American history books present a narrative reflective of the experience of those of European descent, while the stories of Asian, Native, Hispanic, and African Americans are relegated to the side bar. Just last year, a major publisher had to rewrite a textbook that referred to African slaves as “workers” and “immigrants.” The fact that this glossing over of the history of slavery in this country even got into our classrooms (and will stay in those that can’t afford to purchase new textbooks) is shameful indeed.

Second, equity and equality are not the same thing. I saw a great graphic showing the difference (http://interactioninstitute.org/illustrating-equality-vs-equity/). In an equality model, everyone stands on the same size box, but some still can’t see over the fence. In an equity model, individuals stand on different sized boxes so they can all see over the fence. Equity means that we level the playing field. White students have the privilege and advantage of seeing and hearing White perspectives throughout the curriculum. As I’ve said before, we have to “overprivilege” the underprivileged group. This means we supplement our curriculum with the stories of important figures in American history that might otherwise go untold. Think about it as providing an access point. Just as you might pre-teach vocabulary to English language learners or plan a hands-on learning experience for tactile-kinesthetic learners, so are you providing access to African American students by making the curriculum relevant.

Finally, teaching and celebrating Black History Month is a safeguard. I think about it in the same way I think about affirmative action. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary and people would be judged by “the content of their character.” Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Affirmation action protects against institutional racism. It gives underrepresented minority students the ability to “see over the fence.” Similarly, Black History Month protects against those who would not teach Black history at all. When you consider the fact that Black students are twice as likely to not graduate as White students, it is clear that engaging them in school is paramount.

So if you are teaching Black history throughout the school year, keep on keeping on. But celebrate Black History Month (and Women’s History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month and Native American Heritage Month) too! All children need to have their identities recognized and represented at school, in particular those who have historically been left out. Learning about the complex tapestry of American history benefits everyone, but especially the children who need it the most.