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Black History Is American History, All Year Round

Meaningful discussions about black history, women's history -- indeed, all histories -- should not come and go with the passing of the calendar.
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By Daniel Jocz

It's that time of year again. Schools across the United States have dusted off their posters of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks in celebration of Black History Month, and soon they'll be coming down. This year, even Heineken jumped on the bandwagon. They released an advertisement in February that stated, "Come and Celebrate Black History Month with Heineken."

I doubt this is what historian Carter G. Woodson had in mind when he began Black History Week in 1926, in an effort to properly place the teaching of African-American history into the study of American history.

As a child I remember February filled with stories of George Washington Carver and Jackie Robinson, told with enthusiasm by my well-meaning teachers. Peanuts, baseball, and dreams -- that was black history growing up.

But now I'm a teacher myself. I teach AP United States History, and in spite of the encouragement from Heineken, I did not celebrate Black History Month in my classes this year. Nor will I celebrate Women's History Month in March, Asian Pacific Heritage in May, Hispanic Heritage in September, or even LGBT Month in October.

We have an unfortunate tendency in this country to exclude the stories of various groups in our year-round teaching of the nation's history. The experience of African Americans, women, immigrants, workers, the poor, and gay and lesbian individuals is American history. We should not need special months or laws signed by elected officials to commit ourselves to teaching an American history that is inclusive of all Americans. The American experience has been influenced by class, gender, race, sexual orientation, geography, and religion. To not teach this history year round is to do a disservice to our nation's rich, complicated past.

So rather than wait for February to do some token lessons attempting to acknowledge the complex experiences of African Americans, why not, during a lesson on the Boston Massacre, examine why Paul Revere chose to omit African American Crispus Attucks from his powerful piece of colonial propaganda? Did Mr. Revere not think that the loss of a black man's life would be an effective force in mobilizing the colonial cause against the British?

In discussing with students why Paul Revere chose to exclude the death of Attucks, we can not only have an honest conversation about the American Revolution, but also about why it was necessary for individuals such as Carter Woodson to introduce the idea of a Black History Week in the first place.

It is also imperative that we move beyond the hero worship that is characteristic of these monthly celebrations. Certainly the stories of King and Parks are remarkable and deserving of attention and celebration. But my unit on the Montgomery Bus Boycott does not begin with the arrest of Rosa Parks.

When students walk into my class, they are given two arrest reports, one of Parks and the other of Claudette Colvin. In analyzing these primary sources, students discover that nine months prior to Parks' arrest, Colvin, a fifteen-year-old African American, refused to give up her seat in the same busing system. As history teachers, we should remember to be inclusive of young people too, and celebrate the important risks they've taken throughout our nation's history.

Education should be not only inclusive but also empowering. I would imagine that nearly every student knows that Martin Luther King had a dream, but it is imperative that we teach year-round about the tremendous contributions and sacrifices made by countless young, old, black, and white individuals in an effort to make that dream a reality. In moving beyond superficial hero worship, we will instill in students a sense of empowerment and foster in them the critical thinking skills that will allow them to have a more authentic view of American history.

Meaningful discussions about black history, women's history -- indeed, all histories -- should not come and go with the passing of the calendar. Throughout the year, we as educators must recognize the important roles that race, gender, class, religion, and sexual orientation have on the American experience. To accomplish this goal should not be too difficult; it is after all American history.

I'll drink a Heineken to that.

Daniel Jocz teaches social studies at a public high school in Los Angeles. For the past two years, 97% of his students have passed the AP U.S. History exam. He is currently a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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