Let me be honest for a minute, when I first came to the United States, I did not understand Black History Month. At all. I would sit in my education classes listening to my professor talk about the importance of emphasizing Black History Month in our future classrooms and I admit to being confused. In my naivete, I thought, “Why can’t we just teach American history?” I did not understand why we were segregating history.
And then I started to read American history.
I realized that America’s history has always been segregated. The more I read, the more I realized that outside of sections on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, the vast majority of U.S. history textbooks were stories about Americans of European descent. James Baldwin is famously quoted as saying,
“When I was going to school, I began to be bugged by the teaching of American history, because it seemed that history had been taught without cognizance of my presence.”
Reading these stories and listening to gracious and patient African American friends describe their educational experience helped me to realize that there can be no “unified” historical story until everyone’s story is included.
One of my favorite songs from the musical, Hamilton, is “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” The song begins with George Washington’s character singing:
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
We have no control who tells our story, but we do control which stories we choose to tell. The stories we choose to tell need to do justice to the people who gave so much to the foundation and formation of this nation. The stories we choose to tell need to go beyond the broad strokes children learn year after year and into the fine detail of underappreciated creators and inventors. The stories we choose to tell need to inspire, uplift, and excite a new generation of history-in-the-making individuals. Stories that are not limited to just one cross-section of our society, but stories that represent all contributors.
This is why Black History Month has gone from being a source of confusion for me to being something I view as essential. If our everyday history teaching is only going to cover the generalities of American history, then taking a month out of the year to shine a spotlight on events and individuals otherwise left out of the story is exactly what is needed.
The thing is, even when we do celebrate Black History Month, we often mimic our textbooks’ incomplete picture. Our focus tends towards topics of some familiarity, namely slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. As such, we often do not look much further than Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Please don’t misunderstand, we need to and must learn about this country’s horrifying history with slavery and celebrate the individuals and groups who worked tirelessly and sacrificially to bring about it’s end. The same is true of the brave national heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.
This is not a call to stop learning about those times or people in American history; rather, this is a call to expand our knowledge to include so much and so many more. Our children (and the adults too) need to learn about Lewis Howard Latimer, Daniel Hale Williams, Alice Ball, Garret Morgan, Bessie Coleman, and many, many others. We need to know the stories of the inventors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and artists who made significant contributions to American life and development.
Two of my favorite books that do just this are:
- Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison: This is an excellent book to jump start your child’s historical education. I think this book is a great resource and an interesting read for any age, not just the “little leaders” in the title.
- What Color is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors by Kareen Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld: I love the way this book weaves a story of two children working with their parents on remodeling an old house into an introduction to many unsung historical heroes. This book should be on every American child’s shelf.
Between these two books, you would have over 29 individuals to learn about, research, and study; one person for each day of February. If you are looking for more resources, Be the Bridge has fantastic book lists for younger kids and another, equally good, one for older kids. You can also see my list from last year here.
With the broad strokes of America’s historical painting finished, let’s start filling in the details.