Exploring the Vastness of Black History
Students can learn a lot about the Black experience in America when teachers seek out a variety of resources to supplement their curriculum.
Black History Month, the brainchild of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, is an opportunity for students to continue learning about the accomplishments and contributions of Black people in U.S. and world history. I say continuing because it was Dr. Woodson’s intention that this month serve as a cumulative showcasing of the Black history that students learned throughout the school year.
Sadly, Black History Month is frequently used as a time to rehash lessons on people and places without any power or purpose. It’s also become a yearly tradition of chronologically positioning the start of Black history with African enslavement, introducing to students the first Black person to do this or that, and culminating with reteaching a sugarcoated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., centering on color-blind myth making courtesy of misinterpreting the “I Have a Dream” speech.
That’s not teaching Black history. That’s checking off a box.
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The history of Black people is not a history of docility, assimilation, or resignation. Our history is a history of resistance, revolution, and making a way out of no way.
For example, consider the freedom fighters commonly known as the Black Seminoles. These were enslaved peoples who escaped to Florida from South Carolina and Georgia and established maroon communities near the newly formed Seminole Nation. They fought in numerous wars with Indigenous peoples against the United States military to protect their homes and freedom. In describing those wars, U.S. General Thomas Jesup wrote, “This… is a Negro war, not an Indian war.”
Although the Black Seminoles were ultimately unsuccessful and exiled to the western frontier, many escaped the slaveholding Creek Nation of Oklahoma and fled to Northern Mexico, where they received a land grant from the government to establish communities to defend the northern border against Indigenous raids. They successfully defended themselves from the likes of the Texas Rangers as well, while serving as a haven for enslaved people in search of freedom.
Sadly, most if not all students are unaware of that history. However, those who are uncomfortable with the truth will continue to ensure that students don’t learn it.
Explore the Vastness of Black History
Learning new ideas and new concepts should make us all uncomfortable, and out of that discomfort comes growth. Growth doesn’t come by way of redundancy or complacency. It doesn’t come with doing the same thing and expecting a different result: That’s insanity.
Rather, what’s needed are teachers who are committed to teaching Black history—throughout the year—and go beyond the narrow scope of what Black History Month has become. Explore with your students the vast universe of Black history that challenges the understanding of the United States as a shining city on a hill. This investigation will reveal, as historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz says in her book Not “A Nation of Immigrants”, “White supremacy and settler colonial violence is embedded in U.S. topography.”
To do this, teachers can utilize resources that go beyond the textbooks and schoolwide curricular supports offered to them. Here are three key resource areas I utilize to do this work.
1. Social media followings: I am active on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. On those specific platforms, I intentionally follow Black scholars, Black journalists, and Black educators who regularly share insights and resources. The resources are usually books and essays on Black history or the history of the United States in relation to Black people.
These accounts also post research reports detailing the condition of Black people in the United States with facts, figures, and statistics developed by social scientists—providing a narrative and analysis. For example, I follow Yale professor Elijah Anderson, and in a tweet he shared a newspaper article about Louis Armstrong speaking of how he was physically sick after seeing Bloody Sunday on the news. I could use this to speak about the Black entertainers who funded the civil rights movement and teach a timely lesson comparing their activism with that of Black entertainers today, particularly on the topic of voter rights.
2. Listening to podcasts: I enjoy listening to podcasts because they’re a great way to help make car rides to and from work more pleasant. I learn a ton and also get some recommendations for books and articles to read.
For example, I listen to SiriusXM radio host Karen Hunter’s The Hub, where numerous episodes are dedicated to lessons offered by Howard University professor Greg Carr on Black history. His lessons have run the gamut, from the Black support for Latin American independence movements to the legacy of Black athletes attending HBCUs. With each lesson, Dr. Carr provides resources, from scholars to the books they’ve written. From these lessons, I gain inspiration to teach my students similarly, while being amazed at how much more there is to learn.
3. Subscriptions to academic journals: When I was in graduate school, I had the luxury of the university library to access academic journals like the The Journal of Negro Education, The Journal of Negro History, Phylon, and Journal of Black Studies, where I’ve learned the very Black history I teach my own students.
No longer a graduate student, I have to pay for access, and so I’ve decided to utilize a free account option for independent researchers offered by Jstor. With free access, anyone can read up to 100 articles a month. I now have access to the same journals I had access to as a graduate student. I encourage all educators to take advantage of this free opportunity to access this resource to support teaching and learning.
Whether teachers realize it or not, they are curators of information and knowledge. When we fail to accompany our lessons with any purpose or power, we do our students a disservice. The history of the Black experience is all about purpose and power. Therefore, teach Black history with that reality in mind. It starts with curating new ways to access and learn hidden knowledge.