In 1926, African-American historian, author, and journalist Carter G. Woodson launched the first formal observation of black history. Starting at a mere week long, the celebration was expanded in 1976, to the full month of February. At the time, President Gerald Ford urged Americans to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history."
This month, like every February for the last 41 years, children across the nation are revisiting Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. They are discussing the Montgomery bus boycott with a focus on Rosa Parks. In many classrooms, teachers are making an effort to venture beyond African-American historical figures that have reached legendary status. But, from a curriculum perspective, we’re touching on topics that are often taken out of a broader context. The fact is, black history is inexorably tied to American history. So, how do we start a year-round and relatable discussion with our children and students?
Empowerment, education, and civil liberty: Frederick Douglass is famously attributed with the quote: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Although the quote doesn’t appear verbatim in any of his recorded writings, it’s a powerful summation of one of Douglass’ prevailing themes. Unfortunately, the breadth of meaning is often misunderstood. The reference to “broken men” isn’t simply a reference to a child who has suffered (in Douglass’ case, being enslaved), but also to the child who learns by example that unjust and immoral actions are acceptable. It’s our job – as parents, educators, and community advocates – to ensure that all children understand right from wrong, firmly grasp that knowledge is power, and have the self-confidence needed to express and defend their convictions.
Instilling in children that education is invaluable and that you can be empowered even when following mom, dad, and your teacher’s rules is easier said than done. It can also seem that people who are most forceful with their opinions, whether those opinions are based on primary or “alternate” facts, are more powerful and successful. One great way to help children understand the bigger picture is to follow work being done by groups like the ACLU. It’s important for children to understand that spectacle is often undone by hard work and perseverance.
Take time to talk about lesser known historical figures: When she was just 15 years old, Claudette Colvin’s act of resistance on a Montgomery bus led to her being named a plaintiff in the federal court case that ultimately resulted in the desegregation of buses in Alabama. Criticized at the time for being “feisty,” Claudette was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and learned about the Civil Rights Movement in school; she was educatedand empowered. In fact, Claudette stood up for her constitutional rights by refusing to give up her seat on the bus nine months before Rosa Parks did the same.
There are countless reasons why certain people are omitted from the prevailing narrative of black history, and there are even more why the experience and contributions of African-Americans are not discussed during certain periods in American history. I guarantee that with a little effort, you can find compelling and relatable figures in every time period, area of interest, and profession.
Introduce diverse & inclusive books: One of the best things about a good book is that it can immerse us in a completely unfamiliar reality in a fun and engaging way. Books can also make us question and enhance what we already know. For young children, focus on books that talk about everyday (contemporary or historical) experiences, celebrate differences, and teach simple lessons about empathy and compassion. For older children, books that challenge preconceived notions or explore more complex themes are appropriate. This also reaches beyond black history – books are a great way to explore women’s history, native American history, Jewish history, and so much more. Let’s make sure children know that all these groups were still on the historical stage, even when they weren’t allowed the spotlight.
Maintaining a continuous conversation about diversity not only benefits young people, it also is a great learning experience for us as adults. Have tips, insight, or anything else to share? I’d love to read, and discuss, your experiences in the comments!