by Ty Allan Jackson
As an author, I’ve had the privilege of visiting schools all across the country. It’s such an enlightening experience to engage with students and educators from all different cultures, races, and economic backgrounds, particularly in February during Black History Month. Whether I’m visiting a predominately black or a predominantly white school during that month, the theme is the same: learning about black leaders who struggled mightily in the face of unimaginable adversity to create equality for black people. While I believe that black history needs to be taught in every school, it can’t be the only aspect of black culture that we teach our children. And it usually is. In my opinion there are two big issues with this approach: it focuses too much on struggle, and too much on the past.
How To Look Beyond a History of Struggle
We all know the names, missions, and stories of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and many others. These are, of course, important figures in our history. But the problem is that black kids are too often seeing themselves represented in historical figures in positions of struggle, overcoming slavery, bigotry, and hatred. And white students are sub-consciously learning to view black people through the lens of inferiority and suppression. This doesn’t serve anyone well. Especially since black history is often whitewashed by outdated text books.
Black history can’t just be confined to one month a year; it needs to be woven into the broader discussion of U.S. and world history. Black people, and all people of color for that matter, have been just as much a part of history as white people. We need to move beyond focusing predominantly on the stories of struggle, and celebrate stories of triumph. We need to better incorporate the achievements and voices of all people of color in our approach to teaching history. We also need to provide modern day context to which students can relate.
How to Look Forward
So how can we modernize Black History Month? I believe that for every black historical figure studied, there should also be a study of their contemporary counterpart. For every James Baldwin we should read Ta-Nehisi Coates. For every Maya Angelou we should discuss Amanda Gorman. For every Shirley Chisholm we should study Stacey Abrams. Let’s face it: in a world where children are taught to better their future, we keep directing them towards the past. It’s time we inspire and educate forward!
When kids, regardless of race, see someone of color doing something that they find cool, relevant, and important, they will gravitate towards that person. Lewis Hamilton and Bubba Wallace are the face of auto racing. They also happen to be black. Misty Copeland is the worlds greatest ballerina. She also happens to be black. Neil deGrasses Tyson is the leading scientist in the world and arguably the smartest person alive and oh…he just happens to be black. Introducing kids to these pioneers and leaders in a wide variety of industries will help build a connection that is less likely to happen in a watered down history book.
What Each of Us Can Do
I don’t see these changes happening in our education system anytime soon. So parents and teachers need to take it upon themselves to promote contemporary figures of color. This can happen during conversations at dinner, or in the books and movies we show our children. It can happen in the brands we use, or the social media content we promote. Let’s balance the way we teach by discussing the past, present, and future of black culture whenever we can. Today, it’s easier than ever for kids to access this information on their electronic devices. But it is up to us to guide them in the right direction and find creative ways to introduce them to historical and contemporary leaders of color. And not just in February.