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My mom always emphasized the importance of education outside of the classroom when my sisters and I were younger. One of her avenues for accomplishing this was through informative placemats at our kitchen table. While the adults would eat on traditional placemats, we were assigned ones with maps of the United States to learn geography, phonics to improve our reading and pronunciation, clocks to learn time telling, and a list of “Great African Americans” to learn our history.
The Great African Americans placemat contained short biographies and images of 45 Black history icons spanning over 200 years of American history. Without this placemat, I may have never learned about Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Mary McLeod Bethune, or Carter Godwin Woodson.
Unfortunately, not every child has a Great African Americans placemat to read when they’re bored at the dinner table. Instead, they rely primarily on their schools to teach them about Black historical figures. Right now, these schools are generally failing. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center on civil rights education in schools, 20 states were assigned an “F” for their instruction of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and only three were assigned an “A.” Students across the country are lacking in their knowledge of one of the most important rights movements in U.S. history.
When I was between the ages of eight and 13, every February my uncle would host a Black History Month program. He would rent out an auditorium on a Sunday afternoon and invite our relatives and local community members to watch Black youth pay tribute to Black icons, artists, and revolutionaries from before our time. It was an opportunity for us to practice public speaking and remind us who paved the way for so many in our community to achieve.
Every year at the program, the size of the crowd would grow while the list of names discussed stayed the same. The biographies of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and the like were recycled each year. I noticed the same pattern at school. Ten years after my first Black History Month program, the set of Black History Month names remain unchanged while Black history itself progresses every day. It begs the question: What is the relevance of Black History Month if our knowledge of Black history isn’t evolving year to year?
Black History Month is no stranger to evolving its practices, however. In 1926, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, today the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, organized a Black History week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass — two integral figures in the advancement of Black people in the United States. The commemorative week was celebrated across the country. Following the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Black History Week expanded in importance and length. In 1976, ASALH officially changed Black History Week to Black History Month, as we celebrate it today.
In the wake of 2020’s racial awakening, Black History Month in 2021 presents the perfect opportunity to update how we celebrate the Black past. Instead of confining general knowledge of Black history to a list of ten names, February can be used to honor those tackling the issues that plague the Black community today. I don’t suggest that we discard the history entirely; instead, I propose a more dynamic list that elevates figures that rose to prominence past the year 2000. Names like Tarana Burke, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Ava DuVernay, each a Black activist in their own right, should enter Black History Month discourse in years to come.
Educational institutions must place more emphasis on Black history, and not just as an afterthought when February rolls around each year. Modernizing Black history lessons can make them more engaging for students, and potentially correct recent failures of our education system. K-12 and higher education institutions have a responsibility to show students why Black history should matter to them. In an America where Black voices are so often marginalized, any opportunity to uplift them should be immediately seized. Black history is American history.
Chelsea P. Baker ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor.
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