Dr. Carter G. Woodson is best known for his creation of Negro History Week, which became Black History Month. The genius of his creation was in his desire for it to culminate in a weeklong celebration after a year of learning about the accomplishments of Black people.
Negro History Week was never meant to be a one-off acknowledgment, recognition, and celebration of Black history. It was meant to serve as a short period for students to display what they’d learned about the history of Black people, as well as their accomplishments and contributions to the United States and to the world. The same is true for Black History Month. Therefore, it is important that Black history be taught throughout the academic year.
Teach the Why of Black History
It’s easy to say Black history is American history, and it’s true. But many teachers fail to consistently teach it because they dismiss it, are ignorant of it, or are willing but unsure of how to do it well without implicating whiteness.
It’s impossible because the facts, people, and events that seem harmless to teach are connected to White supremacy and systemic racism. In other words, you can’t talk about facts, people, and events without explaining why they came about. Teaching Black history year-round is important, but when teaching the who, what, when, and where, you can’t leave out why.
In his book Fugitive Pedagogy, Dr. Jarvis Givens created the term rigorous sight, which encourages educators to investigate all aspects when teaching Black history. According to Givens, rigorous sight is a disciplined and vigilant practice of intellectual inquiry into power dynamics and anti-Blackness as well as into the life and culture of Black people through conceptual engagement with their lived experiences. In other words, it’s teaching through the lens of the Black experience in America and asking questions.
We can do this similarly through the lens of the Indigenious, Latino/a, and Asian communities with reference to the American experience and questioning injustice. Rigorous sight helps to fulfill the purpose of education, which James Baldwin said was “to create in a person the ability to look at the world for [themselves], to make [their] own decisions... to ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions... [to achieve their] own identity.”
So, what does that look like for teachers?
1. Incorporate Black people. This may seem simple to the point of absurdity, but in the spirit of keeping things simple, don’t think too hard. Identify Black people who’ve had an impact in whatever subject you’re teaching. For example, if you teach an American Literature course and you’re studying the writings of the Romantic period, read (and study) Black writers of that period—which shouldn’t be too difficult because that time coincided with the antebellum period. Instead of only studying and discussing White people, look to study and discuss Black people throughout your year-round content.
Rigorous sight tip: When studying and discussing Black figures, discuss what inspired them to do what they did or say what they said, connecting that to societal injustices of their time. Use that as an opportunity for students to investigate the societal injustices they see to imagine what they could do to address it like the figures they learned about.
2. Incorporate Black perspectives. Incorporating Black people within your curriculum is fairly simple to do. Using the previous example, if studying the Romantic period in American literature, read Black Romantic writers. That offers some perspective. But how do you get that perspective in the other content areas? You can start by using texts written by Black authors to cover your year of content. Also, utilize resources authored by Black scholars, journalists, and creatives, including videos, documentaries, and even social media content to fuel lessons, activities, and assessment. [Whispers: This also means hiring more Black teachers, among other things—but I digress.]
Rigorous sight tip: When utilizing and discussing the perspectives of Black people within your content via Black authors, journalists, and creatives, highlight their stories that led them to their work and relate it to purpose. Doing this can inspire students to discover their own purpose, which fuels their ambition.
3. Incorporate the Black community. Black history isn’t a relic of the past. Black history is living and breathing; Black people make history every day, including Black people in your local community. Seek out opportunities to invite guests into your classroom throughout the year. Invite Black community members who may be politicians, doctors, or entrepreneurs—not only to speak to students but to partner with them on a project or event related to serving the community, but specifically the Black community.
Rigorous sight tip: When working with members of the Black community on a project or event, be sure to highlight the impetus for it, specifically the historical circumstances surrounding the project or event to highlight the why. Also, ensure that students can articulate the why as part of their ability to explain the project or event.
Authentically Commit to Rigorous Sight
These suggestions serve only as a starting point. Certainly, there is much more to be done to ensure that Black history has a permanent place within all content areas. If district leaders truly prioritize Black history, they will instruct curriculum supervisors and department leads to ensure that Black history is infused throughout instruction.
An authentic commitment to teaching Black history year-round includes instilling rigorous sight in Black students and all students. Simply knowing names, places, and dates without generating inquiry to inspect the societal conditions and investigate power dynamics to manifest purpose isn’t teaching Black history.
It’s business as usual.