Black History’s Important. Here’s How to Teach it All Year

It felt like someone punched me in the gut. Anger grew inside of me, and the blood in my arms tingled with rage. Thank God that the student wasn’t near me when I read the comment. I would have lost my damn mind. But being the level-headed (ha!) adult that I am, I waited a few days to talk to the kid about his comment.

What did he say? What did he say?

Every year, at the end of my AP Government course, I give my students a lengthy survey about the class. What went well, what didn’t. A few years ago, I got feedback that sticks with me to this day. The student said, “you spent too much time on black civil rights.” I was floored. Talk about privilege. My initial response (in my head, of course) was, “it must be nice that none of this pertains to you. So much so that you think I talk about it too much.”

It took me a while, but I did end up speaking with the student about it, and we’re still on good terms to this today. He clarified. He said he wished I had spent more time on other civil rights movements instead of just giving a project. Fair.

After talking with him, I addressed the class. Ok. I went in on them. When most of them leave my class, they won’t have to directly deal with race issues again.  Unless they choose to. That’s why I spend “so much” time on black civil rights. Most of my AP class was white, and that’s an issue for another post. Usually, I handle criticism pretty well, but I couldn’t this time. You know what it’s like. You’re passionate about teaching something, and students stomp on your heart. Like it’s a New York City cockroach. It hurts.

This conversation got me thinking. For a while, I felt that some of the topics I’ve talked about with my students are now irrelevant. (Boy, was I wrong). A few years ago, we spoke about police brutality, but I hadn’t seen much in the news about it lately. So I thought I’d tweak what I was doing. Because you know teens, if it’s not about them or happening right now, they don’t give a crap.

But the events of this spring confirmed that the way I teach is valid. I’ve been amazed by how little people know about many of these issues. The fact that the only civil rights leader that anyone posts about is Martin Luther King, jr. is telling.

So what’s this got to do with Black History Month?

Dream with me for a minute. Imagine we didn’t relegate teaching “non-white” history to designated “History Months?” I remember when I was student teaching. My cooperating teacher, was like “it’s February, teach Black History. Next month teach Women’s History.” So that’s what I did.

Don’t get me wrong. Black History Month is essential.  It brings attention to and honors the contributions of black people. It helps continue the conversation about issues black Americans face.

Furthermore, it’s an excellent reminder that we need to tell all stories. That said, it is not the only time we should be teaching about this stuff. Assigning one month to teach Black History creates “otherness.” This otherness can lead to comments like the one from my former student.

Fortunately, the schools I’ve worked at encouraged teaching history beyond a Euro-centric worldview. Additionally, I’ve worked with teachers who are eager to teach about marginalized groups. Groups who rarely get a fair shake and are often regulated to a paragraph or two in a textbook. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case everywhere.

For a lot of us, not teaching this history isn’t because of a lack of desire, it’s often because of a lack of know-how. So, I created a list of tips and suggestions to help you get started. This list will help you create interesting and thoughtful lessons. I’ve also included a free resource at the end of this post. Let’s dive into my tips for teaching Black History all year:

Tip #1: Talk About Topics In Order

If you’re anything like me, you’ve taught both chronologically and thematically.  I prefer to teach chronologically. I find that my students “get it” better that way. When you teach history in order, you can sprinkle in black history. This way it won’t seem like a one-off topic. Or worse. Less important.  Remember, black history IS American History (I know! So cliché). Without the contributions of African Americans, the United States would look very different.

Also, we gotta be real for a sec. Some things we teach the kids aren’t that important, and the kids don’t care about them. Before you come for me, remember, many kids won’t learn if they feel like the topics have nothing to do with them.  Teens are selfish. It’s science.  So make connections!

Need help with chronology? Here’s a quick list of SOME of the topics I discuss. (It’s a lot. I definitely don’t get to everything every year. Also, some issues pertain more to my civics classes).  A note: these are post-Reconstruction topics. That’s where the high school curriculum in most places I’ve taught starts. 

  • W.E.B. DuBois v. Booker T. Washington
  • Ida B. Wells
  • Ragtime
  • Jim Crow
  • Lynching
  • Great Migration
  • Harlem Hell Fighters
  • Harlem Renaissance & Jazz
  • The Blues
  • Jesse Owens & 1936 Olympics
  • Double V Campaign & Tuskegee Airmen
  • Redlining
  • Rock & Roll
  • Emmett Till
  • Civil Rights Movement including Malcolm X and the Black Panthers
  • Vietnam War
  • Hip Hop
  • War on Drugs
  • Race Relations in the 1990s
  • Gentrification
  • Affirmative Action
  • Mass incarceration
  • Police Brutality

Tip #2: Use Music

Music is one of my passions. The best music was invented right here in the United States, especially in the American South. African Americans created or influenced much of American music. Jazz, blues, rock & roll, rap, and even country, have African Americans to thank.  In my experience, many students listen to rap.  So, I love to end the school year with a mini-unit on hip-hop. But before we get to the creation of hip hop, we have to discuss the history of American music. Again, this is something I do throughout the school year. At the end of each decade or unit.  Also, music was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement, so I use it daily during that unit.

Tip #3: Choose the lens of resilience rather than the lens of oppression

We can’t talk about black folks in America without discussing oppression. But that’s not the only story. We can’t just teach about victimhood. This leads us into the murky waters of the “white savior.” (If you don’t know what that is, I will talk about it in a future post). It is vital to address resilience and resistance as well.  It’s important for kids to understand how blacks bettered their circumstances.

BONUS TIP: Another thing I always talk about is the concept of white guilt.  I’ve had several white students feel bad about this history. They feel like they are in some way responsible (they have told me this). I don’t ever want them to feel put on the spot or blamed for past injustices. As the teacher, you’ve got to let them know they are in a safe space. Teach them how they can be allies. Above all, it is crucial to have this conversation BEFORE talking about these topics.

Tip #4: Discuss Contemporary Issues

This is so obvious right now, it’s not even funny. Yet, this is one of the most challenging tasks we have as teachers. We have so much to cover during the school year. But, discussing current issues could be the most important and impactful thing we can do. Now more than ever. So, I try to carve out time to discuss current issues whenever I can. Some of my favorites are gentrification, police brutality, and mass incarceration. If the kids are into it, I’m teaching it.  No, we don’t have all the time in the world to teach everything we want. But, it’s important to try. This not only teaches kids that many issues about race still exist. (This is so freaking obvious, but there are still people who think we live in a “Post-Racial” America). It also validates many of the problems students might dealing with.

Tip #5: Educate Yourself

Now you might be saying to yourself, “but I don’t know enough to teach about this stuff.” Hey, as long as you’re open to learning, you can teach it. I remember showing one of my colleagues I lesson I do on lynching, and she asked me, “how do you know all this?” It’s from educating myself. I’ve participated in several PDs, read books, and watched documentaries. I took classes in college. I also participated in a summer program through the National Endowment of Humanities. It focused on a subject relating to African Americans. It’s taken years. And I’m still learning. I know I teach much better when I am confident about the issue.  I encourage you to learn more, so you can continue teaching Black History all year. Start with a book. Check out a documentary. Start.

That’s it for now. I hope you find this helpful.

Click here to get my Top Ten Tips & Resources for Teaching Black History All Year…FREE!

For more info on how to teach black history and other socially conscious topics, click here to check out the Teach Hungry Movement.

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