“We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.”
These lines were written in 1927 by Carter G. Woodson in the article, “The Celebration of Negro History Week” in The Journal of Negro History. As the originator of Black History Month, even nearly a century ago Woodson’s intention was clear: he wanted people to realize and acknowledge Black people’s tremendous and valuable contributions to the world.
I doubt Woodson’s intent was that in 100 years, schools would honor Black history by assigning 28 days of book reports on Black people and then return to “business as usual.” Woodson wanted us to pay closer attention to actual history—not just the white Eurocentric history so prevalently celebrated in textbooks and stories. And Woodson was right; when you start really examining the history of the world, you don’t have to look very hard to see that Black history is history.
Last week, I attended an event at the UCLA Center for the Art of Performance as part of their Words & Ideas Speaker Series. It was a conversation between Black authors Jesmyn Ward, the first woman and person of color to win the National Book Award twice, and Michell Jackson, heralded as “a new literary star.” Jackson opened the evening with a wry comment that he and Ward would be busy with appearances for the next few weeks before things settled down again, since February is “our month.” When I bought tickets to see these speakers back in November, I hadn’t noticed the timing of the event and hadn’t considered whether UCLA had deliberately scheduled it to coincide with Black History Month. Couldn’t these literary luminaries have appeared any month of the year?
This is the dilemma of Black History Month. The contributions of Black Americans are too often overlooked in our country, so there is value, then, in setting aside a month to focus on this critical aspect of our history. Mitchell Jackson stated, “The writer’s voice is… a response to cultural or political pressures, and can become a means of expressing their values as well as making visible elements of themselves that those in power try to erase or invalidate.”
However, in her recent The New York Times Opinion piece, Kathana Cauley points out that “Black History Month is the shortest month of the year… giving stubborn people 337 days to pretend Black history doesn’t exist.” Sure, Black History Month offers opportunities for authors, scientists, inventors, mathematicians, artists, historians, activists, athletes, and unnamed people who, as Cauley points out, “built the White House, the tobacco and cotton industries, and the railroads, and made most of the last 20 years’ pop hits” to become more visible in a culture that has historically refused to acknowledge them or the injustices that have contributed to their invisibility and marginalization. But, like Carter G. Woodson 100 years ago, I wish to get to a place where we as a culture celebrate Black history all year long, because otherwise, we run the risk of checking the box during February and thinking we have done our best.
At Turning Point, we strive to be culturally competent with our curriculum all year round, taking great care to represent and celebrate the contributions of all kinds of people, particularly those who have been historically marginalized: Black, Latinx, Asian, Muslim, LGBTQ+, and women from myriad backgrounds, to name a few. In addition, Black History Month offers an opportunity to help our students take a deeper dive into Black history as it has influenced, inspired, and improved our lives – both historically and from current perspectives.
I asked our teachers to share with me some of the ways they are incorporating lessons from Black history into their curriculum this month, and their work is thoughtful and meaningful:
- Primary classes are centering on the values we have learned from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through discussions about peaceful conflict resolutions, respecting and embracing differences, and kindness.
- Kindergarteners are learning about Dr. Mae Jemison and George Washington Carver, as well as studying the Civil Rights movement. Teachers will soon share quotes from many significant figures in Black history, which will inspire the creation of a “freedom quilt” of sorts, using the aforementioned quotes and pictures they draw.
- Grade 1 is focusing on famous African American poets, such as Langston Hughes by reading books such as That is My Dream and writing their own poems in response.
Our second graders read the book Martin’s Big Words, by Doreen Rappaport, and learned about the essential role upstanders play in the community. Students then created powerful, multi-media collages that reflect the identities of themselves and Dr. King using descriptive words found in magazines and newspapers. These collages are currently on display outside of Grade 2 classrooms.
- Grades 3-5 are researching historical figures who have made a difference in our country and imagining what life might be like without these contributions and impacts. In Grade 5, students will explore their understanding of these contributions and any misconceptions they may have previously held. Students will reflect on the ways they can act to bring justice to the world.
- In Middle School, Grade 6 Humanities students have been immersing themselves the works and biographies of great African-American writers as part of their exploration of poetry with the Intergenerational Writer’s Workshop. As they learned about Harlem Renaissance poets, they explored themes of persistence, life advice, pride, and triumph over injustice. Students studied theme and form in poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde, as inspiration for their own poems. Students listened to Maya Angelou recite “Still I Rise,” her beautiful anthem of hope in the face of adversity, as they considered how injustice often ignites a swelling of determination, hope, and renewed strength.
- Grade 6 students will also explore contemporary voices in poetry, including Elizabeth Alexander and Rita Dove, as they explore lyricism. Each week, students write and share poems addressing the themes and forms they study through mentor texts such as these, giving them many celebrated pieces and lives to look to as they look to their own experiences and develop their voices as poets.
- In Grade 7 Humanities, Black history is woven into the curriculum throughout the year. As part of their extended studies on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., students analyzed a documentary about the lunch counter protests in Nashville and wrote “Found Poetry,” using words from The New York Times‘ obituary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the source for their language. Additionally, students connected the Civil Rights movement in the United States to other movements they studied in class, including Gandhi’s Salt March which gave impetus to the Indian independence movement.
- Grade 7 students will continue to explore the impact of European colonialism across the world as they focus next on the Dominican Republic in preparation for their Spring Trip. Students will learn how race is viewed differently in the Dominican Republic and learn about how Haiti became the first free nation in the new world. Finally, next month they will begin a unit on colonial Africa by researching some of the great early empires of Africa.
- In Grade 8, students are examining questions around justice, with the intended purpose of teaching about Black experiences beyond slavery and empowering student voices. Students read and analyzed the impact of MLK Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” They responded to key quotations in the text and shared their reflections on justice at a recent all-school assembly. To further their thinking around justice, their Book Club selections this month are The Hate You Give, March, and Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice.
- Additionally, Grade 8 students participated in Black Lives Matter Week (2/4-2/8), inspired by Teaching Tolerance’s lessons, and organized by themes for each day of the week. These themes included restorative justice, empathy, loving engagement, diversity, globalism, intergenerational Black families, and Black women, and they dovetailed with the Grade 8 Humanities’ year-long essential question: What is justice?, as well as themes of stereotypes and identity, and gender studies.
- Later this spring, Grade 8 students will study slavery, drawing connections between our country’s historical roots and systemic racism (including wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, and incarceration) which continues to impact us today.
- Across the grade levels, the library has been highlighting books that offer a peek into the experience of African-Americans. Many students are familiar with historical events, including those related to the Civil Rights era and slavery, and are discovering how literature allows us to understand these past events from a more personal perspective. Titles of note include One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, and Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson.
By setting aside time to impart to our students the powerful and compelling stories of people whose achievements are often veiled, we create opportunities to build racial and cultural understanding. We understand that we don’t want Black history to be a side issue, but one that, along with the contributions of other underrepresented people, helps us to build a richer, more accurate, and more nuanced picture of where we have come from, and more importantly, where we are going.
As Carter G. Woodson asserted, the history of the world should be “void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.” Maybe our children, provided with opportunities to illuminate, reorient, and reimagine history more broadly, will finally be the harbingers of that 100-year hope.
Dr. Laura Konigsberg
Head of School