Each February, schools and organizations all over the United States celebrate Black History Month. This is a month when Americans of African descent are celebrated, their historic achievements highlighted. Often, stories of oppression and overcoming are centered, with heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and other civil rights icons playing major roles. Other times, students are reminded of the heroic achievements of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and other heroic actors from the period of enslavement. Although these are important parts of the African American experience in the U.S., we rarely connect that history to Black experiences and events that feel joyous and celebratory.
While using Black history lessons to fill in the gaps in civics and general curriculum is necessary, so is providing access to stories that do not see the Black experience as one rooted only in oppression and enslavement.
Explore Expansive Black History Origins
It’s paramount that we use Black History Month to remind us all that the origins of Black American society did not start with colonization. Just as U.S. history books recognize America’s ties to Great Britain, African American history is anchored in traditions of great and powerful nations that long predate the transatlantic slave trade.
For example, most of your students will not know that the Great Wall of Benin (in the geographic region of modern-day Nigeria) was estimated to be four times longer than the Great Wall of China. Even teachers and language specialists may not know that Ge’ez (ግዕዝ ), a living language developed in the kingdom of Aksum (near modern-day Eritrea and northern Ethiopia) is one of the great literary languages of the ancient world.
Similarly, neither teachers nor students are likely to know that the way we refrigerate food, treat blindness, use computers, ride trains, and safely use elevators are all things we owe to Black inventors.
Every educator and every student should be able to do the following:
- Name five Black history figures unrelated to the Civil Rights Movement
- Name at least one Black community tradition
- Name at least one Black historical music pioneer or genre
- Name one pop culture trend from the Black community that has gone mainstream (e.g., high-fiving)
- Name at least one Black millionaire
While researching and learning from one another, see if you and your class can put a list together of at least 10 modern Black firsts. Through this student-led, research-centered approach, stories unrelated to oppression can find their way into the spotlight, alongside the legendary stories of sit-ins and the Underground Railroad.
Tap Into #BlackJoy
Equally important to whom we celebrate is how we celebrate. Highlighting joyous events and the contributions of Black Americans to America’s success brings a sense of lightness to the month. In the online Black community, “Black Joy” has its own hashtag.
What fun could it be to have students bring in examples of joyous events or Black firsts for a class billboard: Amanda Gorman’s National Youth Poet Laureate designation and presidential inaugural poem; Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee win; and even Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles’s engagement to Texans safety Jonathan Owens—because February is also the month we celebrate love. Celebrating Black joy sets the tone for, well, celebration!
Set a Celebratory Tone in Your Lessons
Black History Month can feel heavy because of the constant reminders of the traumatic enslavement and Jim Crow eras, but it doesn’t have to be. To be sure, 250 years of enslavement and the struggle for liberation is a big part of the African American experience. The consequences of that time cast long shadows over communities, still. But music, dance, laughter, and love–the moments that have allowed the Black community to thrive—are also mixed in with every tear that has been shed.
A good place to start setting a celebratory tone would be with music and dance. Explore hip-hop culture for bridge-building activities in English language arts or with apps like Flocabulary, which has already cut a path. Sounds and rhythms that have grown out of the African American experience touch virtually every modern musical art form. Explore with your students with activities like these:
- Learn how to dance bachata or salsa, honoring Afro-Latinx communities
- Copy simple djembe beats with desk drumming
- Learn a gospel song, or clap and move to the rhythm of one
Gospel is cultural as well as religious, but be sure to discuss this with your administrators and offer an alternative to any students who may feel uncomfortable taking part.
Take a Virtual Trip
One additional way to add joy to Black History Month celebrations is to virtually traverse the countless cultural and architectural African American landmarks throughout the country.
Visit sites and interactive links like African American Heritage Sites, a searchable database that features almost 2,000 historical sites, museums, and trails to visit online, or you can even plan a field trip to visit. After all, Black history is American history, so any month is a good time to see these cultural assets that have survived time.
Finally, if you want to continue highlighting achievement and the joy this month brings, check out this Edutopia article I wrote, which has a plethora of resources.
This month is an important time for our country, providing us with the opportunity to reflect on our past and to celebrate the diverse flavor that Americans of African descent bring to the fabric of America. Together with your students, as you intentionally seek out opportunities to add lightness and joy to your celebrations, hopefully you’ll be making some history of your own.