There’s rarely time for leisure reading here at Swarthmore, still less time to truly savor any news or experience from outside this bubble that we call home. However I have recently been reflecting on Dion Raboiun’s article in the Huffington Post “Black History Month has been an Epic Failure” and I’ve come to the conclusion that he is absolutely right. In its current incarnation the standard issue Black History Month curriculum is an antiquated and, at times, halfhearted attempt at a more culturally relevant curriculum. I have decided to write this piece in order to lay out a vision for a more effective execution of this special time of year.
Ultimately what ails Black History Month boils down to four points: 1) The month is too focused on certain parts of the past. 2) The standard curriculum often ignores the modern day implications of these stories. 3) The standard curriculum is too heavily focused on the overtly political. 4) The perception of Black History Month as a form of apology to the Black community inhibits the real educational mission of the month.
My first proposal is simple, change the name. Black History Month should become Black Pride Month or Black Heritage Month. There is something about the word History that wrongly or rightly instills the image of a moth eaten manuscript and causes many students to feel that there is little relevancy to them in this material. Not only that but in its current incarnation Black History’s divorce from “American History” makes no sense other than to perpetuate Eurocentric views and ideals. A change to the word Heritage or Pride speaks to the original mission of the month, namely to instill a sense of pride and understanding in students of the contributions of Black people in this country not to mention the world.
Speaking to point one there is a wide spread problem that Black History Month has become too manufactured and repetitive. Reflect for a second on your previous experiences with the month prior to Swarthmore. Chances are that the majority of your Black History Month centered on three figures and their story. Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks are all incredible and important figures in the course of Black History but ultimately these figures are overused and have contributed to both disengagement with the topic of Black History and the marginalization of hundreds of other important figures. I remember vividly being told by my teachers in Second grade to stop asking questions about why we were learning nothing about Malcolm X.
“Because he’s violent and angry” was the popular refrain, ignoring of course Macolm X’s hajj and subsequent expulsion from the Nation of Islam and the change in rhetoric and vision that followed.
My solution would be that Black History Month curricula should be scaffolded similar to any other topic. History, English and Math are all topics that progress across grade levels as medieval times gives way to World War II, as long division gives way calculus in the same way there should be a progressive curriculum for Black History Month. If one were to be learning the same math in 10th grade that they were learning in 7th then society would say that the student and curriculum need to progress, yet many schools seem perfectly comfortable recycling the same Black History Month throughout many students’ entire secondary school careers. Instead of rehashing this, the standard curriculum should involve progressively more in-depth discussions as to the roots of the problems that these figures responded to.
In addition the Black Pride Month curriculum should include a stronger emphasis on understanding the issues and triumphs of the modern day Black community. With the same vigor that some schools are putting toward showcasing modern day poets there should be equal vigor placed to show that racism did not end in the 60s and the way that it manifests itself today. There are organizations that do truly meaningful work that receive little fanfare and even less support simply because schools are not giving their students the information necessary to get involved.
Moving to point three, when covering the topic of Black History, too often the history is centered on either overtly political or athletic achievement. For example the I Have a Dream speech is a staple of the current curriculum; many of us have read the speech every February for years but have never once read the writings of Amiri Barraka, James Baldwin, or Zora Neal Hurston, to say nothing of the writings of those who carry the legacy of these figures today. We speak fondly, and rightfully so, of the bravery and pioneering accomplishments of Jackie Robinson yet neglect to have conversations about the portrayal and treatment of Black athletes now.
Finally in order to truly revolutionize Black History Month into Black Pride Month then the tone with which it is executed must be revolutionized. There seems to be some misconception that Black History Month is inherently apologetic in nature. Many Black students (myself included) remember multiple times where we felt tokenized when we were the first (and sometimes last) called on in February discussions. At times the tone of the classroom feels alienating or at its very worst condescending during Black History Month, Black History Month is not a time that Black students should consistently have to field questions as to why there is no official White History Month.
Let me clarify, Black History Month was conceived in the idea that Black students should not only know their heritage but to foster a sense of pride in it. All too often the Black History Month curriculum is used as an indirect apology to Black students. Instead of doing that, let us take this as a time to reflect on the many accomplishments and contributions of Black communities to the course of history.
Ultimately this article will not solve all the issues of Black History Month; the curriculum is often centered solely on American history and treats Black History as a subject wholly separate from the Eurocentric history taught during most of the rest of the year and too prone to ignore the repercussions of these historical moments. We forget to talk to those who are still alive, such as the very much alive Angela Davis. But most importantly it is time for Black History Month to reflect that we Black students are Black History, living and breathing every day. Black Pride Month will more accurately reflect not only the past but the present of the Black communities so that we can better cultivate our future.
Op-ed submitted by Julian Randall ’15