A Black student dressed in a paper crown and a dashiki sits in an auditorium, his hand resting at his chin.
A student at Humes Preparatory Academy sits in the audience during a Black History Month program in February 2017. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Black lives matter.

So, isn’t it about time — past time, really — that the threads of Black history are acknowledged as part of the American history tapestry — part of every American day, every American week, every American month of every American year?

If Black history is indeed American history, what of Black History Month? What of February — the 28 or 29 days of learning about and focusing on Black Americans’ contributions to society?

We need Black History Month to mend what’s broken, said Charles McKinney, professor of history and director of Africana Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis. Black History Month has been “a powerful corrective to a history that has excluded Black people, diminishing all of the American history; diminishing the truth,” he said.

What is being put right is history that has excluded Black Americans’ contributions, McKinney said. “When you don’t think seriously about Black folks, when you take Black people out of the equation, you aren’t thinking seriously about democracy and about freedom.”

It would be as much a mistake to erase Black History Month as it would be to erase the entire story of a people, said Dr. Lionel Kimble, associate professor of history at Chicago State University. Kimble is also vice president of programs for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the 106-year-old organization founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson.

Black-and-white photo of Dr. Carter G. Woodson
Photo courtesy of U.S. National Park Service.

If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950),
founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History

If Black History Month could have a father, Woodson was at the apex of that family tree.

“Cynics ask, ‘Why did they give us the shortest month of the year?’ ” Kimble said.

Truth is, “they” didn’t “give us” anything.

Woodson, whose parents were formerly enslaved, himself named the second week of February “Negro History Week” in 1926, to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. “Woodson chose that month specifically,” Kimble said. It became Black History Month in 1976, during America’s bicentennial year, signed into law by President Gerald R. Ford.

Woodson, born in 1875, did not even start his formal education until he was in his 20s. But with an insatiable appetite for books, he was drawn to history. Once exposed to the riches of learning, he got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in short order. He was one of the first African Americans to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Kimble explained that ASALH has been like the West African griot, the traditional keeper of a people’s story, that has kept Black history alive for more than a century — during February at least, even when it wasn’t being recognized at other times.

“Woodson was a seminal character for good reason,” McKinney said. He wanted to “create an infrastructure for Black people to learn both inside and outside the schoolroom.” Thus, the precursor to ASALH had chapters that were not based at universities, but in communities, with memberships of ordinary people as well as scholars. That “every person a historian” tradition continues today.

“Black folks in this country are Americans, but are also the stepchild of America,” McKinney said. “That has to be reckoned with.” Incorporating Black history seamlessly into American history is part of that reckoning. Leaving it out diminishes the whole.

Woodson knew that, Kimble said. Woodson was fortunate to be in Chicago when the “Black spaces” he was occupying there were vibrant and plentiful — “a community of go-getters,” he said. “There, the stars aligned for Woodson.” He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the precursor of ASALH, in 1915. The Journal of Negro History and the Negro History Bulletin followed as printed repositories for scholarship.

Woodson died in 1950, but the organization he founded survives and thrives. “We are actually growing,” Kimble said. “We have 50 branches; 10 chartered just last year.” So, the evolved Black History Month is far from outdated or obsolete, he said. (There also is a branch in Memphis.) 

Lessons in history

The teaching of Black history in the nation’s schools is another, not-so-positive matter. Both historians said that is another reason Black History Month should carry on.

Woodson, once a high school principal, would be “vastly disappointed” in the way history and social studies are taught in American schools today, Kimble said. The current low quality of instruction in history dates back to No Child Left Behind programs beginning in 2002 that de-emphasized the humanities in favor of the sciences and mathematics.

“Good history tells the story of how similar we are to each other,” Kimble said. “Those stories are missing” in the teaching of history in public schools. That kind of omission results in misunderstandings, such as “the meaning of ‘Black Lives Matter’,” which is misinterpreted to mean that other lives don’t matter, Kimble said.

A Black student holds a folder with "Black Lives Matter" written on it during a musical performance.
Students hold song books during a musical performance for Black History Month at Humes Preparatory Academy. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Substandard history lessons have taken on political allies, as embodied in  “The 1776 Report” from the Trump administration’s President’s Advisory 1776 Commission last month. The narrative report, with no attribution, footnotes or citations, scattered with gratuitous photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass and released adjacent to MLK Day, suggested that teaching history in inclusive ways is “…melodramatic, in which all that can be learned from studying the past is that groups victimize and oppress each other.” 

Instead, the report asserted, the main goal of history education should be to encourage “love of country.”

“… being American is more than a pride we inherit,/
it's the past we step into/
and how we repair it.”
Amanda Gorman, 2021 Inaugural poet,
excerpt from “The Hill We Climb”

Both Kimble and McKinney dismissed the report as irrelevant and ridiculous. Noted Douglass biographer David W. Blight tweeted, “I have read as much as I can stomach of the 1776 report. It is the product of allowing an array of viciously right-wing, willfully ignorant people to have way too much power. Beliefs devoid of history. I feel so uncomfortable even bringing attention to this mess.”

The report was summarily discarded by the incoming Biden-Harris administration.

“In some ways, it is easy to laugh it off,” said journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, in a Jan. 23 interview on MSNBC. “But it is also dangerous.” Hannah-Jones is a New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary last year for an essay written for “The 1619 Project.” The extensive series of stories traced the roots of 400 years of slavery in America. 

The Pulitzer Center created a school curriculum to coincide with the reporting in the project. In response to Hannah-Jones’s reporting and the curriculum, a Republican lawmaker has introduced legislation to prohibit the teaching of the project in schools.

Hannah-Jones responded in the interview: This is happening “in one of the most racially diverse countries in the world, that has been multiracial since 1619, when English people came to a land that was already occupied by indigenous people…” She added that such moves create the environment for the type of violence seen on Jan. 6 in Washington, when Trump supporters attempted to violently overturn the results of the election. “It is more than rhetoric,” she said.

In the piece, Hannah-Jones wrote what could be an argument for Black History Month as a preserver of democracy:

“…Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy. …Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of Black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all. …”

Teaching the teachers

Historians Kimble and McKinney agree that the denial of Black people’s contributions to American history is dangerous. Their personal histories and views of education inform their opinions about Black history and the month during which it is celebrated.

An enthusiastic lover of history, Kimble, 47, was himself descended from grandparents who were “New Deal Democrats” and parents who were part of the Black Power struggle. The University of Iowa graduate lives in Bronzeville, the Black cultural center of Chicago. He regularly points out to students Woodson’s haunts and places trod by icons of Black history, such as Ida B. Wells, who made Chicago home after leaving Memphis.

Dr. Charles McKinney speaks while holding a bullhorn.
Dr. Charles McKinney speaks during an action calling for the removal of the Confederate statues in Memphis in August 2017. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

McKinney, 53, cultivated a love of history from family members, many of whom attended historically Black colleges. The California native chose Morehouse, a historically Black university in Atlanta, then Duke University for his graduate work. First thinking he wanted to become a lawyer, the study of African American history drew him in and has informed his scholarship since. He requires his students to be “vocal and engaged.”

Both historians decry the state of teaching history in schools.

One of the ways ASALH tries to remedy this is through teacher workshops around the country. Mandates for the teaching of Black history are useless, Kimble said, if the teachers — many times ignorant of facts about Black history themselves — do not know how to teach it.

That context and nuance are missing from the teaching of history in schools, where each state devises its own standards and textbooks, McKinney said. Examining and changing state curriculum standards is one possible remedy. “We have been seeing some movement on state levels for a while,” he said.

“I would love to see national standards. But that gets complicated. All schools are not created equal.”

In Tennessee, the teaching of civil rights history is mandated by law in several courses, including in the fifth grade where standards include requiring students to analyze key people and events. Civil rights history is also a part of the required U.S. History course in high school, and is taught in elective courses on African American History and Tennessee History, according to a statement from the staff of the state Board of Education.

But there are no specific standards on how the subject should be taught. “In terms of the question on how to teach the standards, we specifically don’t get into that level of detail on the standards,” the statement said. “Standards represent what students should know and be able to do at the end of a grade/course. Districts then adopt curricular materials, such as textbooks, that set out how and when each standard is taught.”

Studies in 2011 and 2014 by the Southern Poverty Law Center on the teaching of American civil rights history found that universally, state history standards “routinely ignored or over-simplified the struggle for African-American civil rights.” The smaller the Black population in a city or town, the lower the standards, it found.

“Too often, we found, the movement, when it is given classroom time, is reduced to lessons about two heroic figures — Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks — and four words, ‘I have a dream,’” the SPLC study said.

Kimble said there is an obligation to young people to teach history correctly. “We need to train the babies in the correct way, so they know where they fit in the narrative,” he said. He did find a measure of optimism in the multi-racial demonstrations following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others: “The ‘woke’ babies give me hope.”

McKinney said he is cautious about reading too much into the overwhelming response to last summer’s murders of Black people. “It is not hard to be mad at what happened to George Floyd. The same thing with Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. It is easy to organize around that.

“So, ‘Thank you, everybody, who were out in the street’; but how does this moment get translated into substantive changes that improve the lives of Black people? It’s going to be interesting how this moment plays out,” McKinney said.

Kimble is looking to the future, too. “When we look back in 25 years, hella stories are going to come out of this period. I just hope it isn’t the story of a civil war. I’ll be staying in the trenches, trying to tell the stories of our people. If we don’t tell them, the world won’t know.”

Amanda Gorman, 22, the youngest Inaugural poet in U.S. history, said as much, as she recited “The Hill We Climb” at the Biden-Harris inauguration on Jan. 20.

“… while we have our eyes on the future / history has its eyes on us.”

A row of Black students stand in front of a stage with their fists in the air.
Students hold their fists up while presenting a Black History Month program at Humes Preparatory Academy. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Celeste Williams is a writer and playwright living in Indianapolis. She was a journalist for more than 25 years, having worked at daily newspapers in Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana. She has won national awards, including recognition for reporting on extreme poverty in Tunica, Mississippi. Her play, “More Light: Douglass Returns,” about abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was produced in 2017 and 2018 in Indiana.

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