Every year, when the month of February rolls around, there is one thing on the lesson plan in public schools: Black History Month. History classes teach about the Civil War and how President Lincoln freed the slaves, and then jump to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the lives of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. English classes look at the speeches of Dr. King, and perhaps at the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. Every February, schools across the nation discuss these same few events and these select few persons, with little, if any, variation.
Some people think that Black History Month is a great thing, while others are more skeptical. The idea of it is great—children should be educated in the history of many diverse cultures. However, in practice, Black History Month is a letdown.
The first problem is that it is only a month long. Schoolchildren learn about American and European—that is, white—history from September through January, and again from March through June. Yet black history is just as long, just as varied, and just as interesting as this white history. Indeed, humanity originated in Northern Africa and the “fertile crescent” of the Middle East, regions that were populated by people who, today, we would probably call “black.” Instead of devoting one single month to the study of black history, shouldn’t it be taught alongside our current Eurocentric history? And furthermore, if we have to separate black history into its own month, why do we give it the shortest month of the year?
The other flaw of Black History Month is the limited scope of what is taught in that time period. Black history is filled with many great artists, writers, musicians, and political figures. Yet the schools focus on only a few of these: Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass. While these people, and the actions they undertook, are important to study, there are others who deserve to be taught as well.
In school, children are taught about the American and French Revolutions, but there is no mention of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s Haitian Revolution, nor of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in America. No mention is made of how the leaders of the Haitian Revolution were inspired by the events of the American Revolution, and how the Americans, out of fear, helped to cripple the newly-born nation with trade embargoes.
The writings of Frederick Douglass are often assigned to students, but how many classes assign Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or the poems of Langston Hughes? Music courses look at Beethoven and Pachelbel, but ignore the virtuosity of Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dexter Gordon, and Miles Davis.
Social studies courses look at Frederick Douglass’s influence in the abolition movement and at Martin Luther King’s and Rosa Parks’s involvement in the civil rights movement. But these have not been the only influential African-Americans in history. Oftentimes, students reach college having never heard of such great black thinkers and leaders as W.E.B. DuBois or Marcus Garvey. And while students may have heard of Malcolm X, they often don’t know what his teachings were. Stokely Carmichael, Huey P. Newton, and Bobby Seale are other names that, unfortunately, are often unknown. And while students hear about the evils of slavery and Jim Crow, other important historical events are ignored: good things such as the Harlem Renaissance and troubling things such as the Tuskegee experiments are either glossed over or skipped completely.
It is true that any student who is interested can do his or her own reading on these topics. But that is true of all studies, yet every high school student is still made to study the classics of English literature, as well as the lives of important white leaders. It is a sad state of affairs that every February, from kindergarten to the senior year of high school, students are taught about the same handful of important African-American figures. At the very least, the scope of Black History Month should be broadened; ideally, the month-long period would be done away with, and black history, literature, and art would be taught alongside the more traditional studies.