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‘We have to remember in schools, we do not teach a curriculum. We teach citizens who will be decision makers soon after they graduate.’
Submitted by the University at Buffalo
Black History Month arrives shortly after each new year, but does 2023 bring any changes surrounding Black history and how it’s being discussed and taught in schools?
Not according to LaGarrett King, Ph.D., director of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo.
“The original intent was to ensure that K-12 students understood Black people's rich history, which had been ignored or poorly conceived in schools. It is interesting that, after almost a century, many of the same issues are concerns for today,” King said.
King is an internationally recognized and award-winning scholar of Black history education. His primary research interest examines the teaching and learning of Black history in schools and society. He also researches critical theories of race, teacher education and curriculum history.
Below, King shares his insights on Black History Month.
Q: What is the importance of Black History Month?
Black History Month presents opportunities for us to pause, to think and reflect on histories of Black people and their historical experiences. Also, it allows us to pause and reflect about today. Knowing our history means that we know about humanity. It is believed that if we know our history, we learn from it in hopes to better our present and future. If this is true, Black History Month is a time where we can ask questions that can hopefully effect change. Questions such as, “To what extent have we changed how we treat our citizens?” or “What more can we do to ensure we are living our democratic principles?” These questions, when examining all Black histories, including the University at Buffalo or the City of Buffalo and surrounding area, are meant not only as symbolic, but as a guide for actionable steps for a better and equitable society.
Q: How has teaching Black history changed?
A: For 97 years, some form of Black history week or month has been commemorated in the United States. The original intent was to ensure that K-12 students understood Black people's rich history, which had been ignored or poorly conceived in schools. It is interesting that, after almost a century, many of the same issues are concerns for today. At this moment, we have states that have attempted to make certain Black histories illegal to teach in public schools. Black History Month is as important as ever, as Black History Month is not only celebrated in schools but also throughout community spaces.
Q: How should Black History Month be celebrated and acknowledged in K-12 schools?
The purpose of Black History Month was never about teaching Black history one time of year. The purpose was always to teach throughout the year, and February was a time to showcase students' Black history knowledge throughout the year. Therefore, think of February as a sort of assessment for students.
I personally would like schools to develop what I call Black history fairs. Similar to science fairs, Black history fairs are project/problem-based assignments given to students at the beginning of the year about an enduring problem facing the country or communities. The teacher will guide throughout the project. The fairs are deigned to use the Black history knowledge that students have to attempt to solve the enduring concern.
The key here is making history useful. Next, it allows students to become problem solvers based on their historical knowledge. Last, Black history fairs help to create citizens.
We have to remember in schools, we do not teach a curriculum. We teach citizens who will be decision makers soon after they graduate. Fairs give students permission to change society for the better. Remember, we use the month as a way to demonstrate knowledge and, while Black History Month programs are fine, stretching our kids' minds should be the goal.
Q: What are some of the tools or skills you think every teacher and administrator should have at their disposal to ensure they’re including Black history in their curriculum year-round, not just in February?
Educators need to be purposeful with Black history education. That means to continue to question who and what events are missing in the history curriculum. Additionally, teachers need to continually seek out knowledge and professional development. Here are the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education staff's favorite Black history resources.
Q: Can you tell us more about this year’s Black History Month theme of “Resistance” and what it means?
Resistance is one of the cornerstones of Black histories. The first time many schoolchildren learn about Black people is through enslavement and other oppression-centered narratives. Black people are taught as passive people and disconnected from their liberation. The prevailing narrative emphasizes white saviors and the federal government as Black people’s primary liberators. When Black resistance is taught, “resistance” is limited to “nonviolence,” and historical narratives that state otherwise are vilified and compared to white supremacy.
Resistance is a rich history, one of steadfast courage and dignity in the face of oppression. Resistance is an action that attempts to reverse power dynamics. To teach resistance is to teach oppression, because they are connected. Resistance is about disruptions to economic, social, political and psychological systems.
Resistance can be classified in two ways. First, resistance attempts to change oppression within the system. In other words, the purpose is to make their life better, but they are trying to make the system less oppressive. This approach is usually more subtle and what scholars call everyday resistance. The second form of resistance is about dismantling the oppressive system. Most people recognize this type of resistance because it is more physical and in your face, such as revolts. At the end, resistance is about undermining oppression to ensure power is more equitable.
Q: What else is important for people to know?
Remember that Black histories are histories from Black people's perspectives. That means that the history may look different than what we have deemed as traditional history, because Black people's historical experiences are different. When teaching Black history, we should focus on eight principles, which I call Black historical consciousness. These principles include teaching through Black people historical experiences with anti-Blackness, agency, the African Diaspora, emotions, identities, contention, social histories, and futures. Detailed explanations to these are located in my 2020 article, “Black History is not American History.”
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are based on the opinions and/or research of the faculty member(s) or researcher(s) quoted, and do not represent the official positions of the University at Buffalo.