Education advocates say including Black history throughout the year is essential to students’ understanding of social studies and current events, yet lawmakers nationwide seek to limit discussions of race in the classroom.
“African history is not just American history it’s world history,” said Sadie Shaw, a Tucson Unified School District Governing Board member. “If we focus more on who we are now and who we were before slavery, it will have a tremendous impact on our psyche and our development of youth and our ability to change and overcome our current conditions.”
ASBA video: Black History Month: Sadie Shaw
Republican-led Legislatures in Arizona and 40 other states are considering or have approved bills that would limit classroom discussions of “divisive topics” that “may cause students’ discomfort” such as racism.
In January, the Arizona House Education Committee approved House Bill 2112, sponsored by House Education Committee Chair Michelle Udall, which would prohibit using public money to pay for instruction that places blame or judgement on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex with penalties of up to $5,000 for each instance and the possible revocation of a teacher’s certificate. The amended bill was narrowly approved on the House floor, and awaits hearing in the Senate.
High School English Teacher Kristin Roberts, a National Board Certified Teacher, told the Arizona House Education Committee on Jan. 18, 2022 ,that she opposes the bill, because “this bill definitely undermines local control and all of the community members, the parents, the school board members, and the educators who come together to adopt curriculum that we teach in our classrooms.”
“I do have a colleague who spoke to me last week who said ‘I know this is in the district curriculum, but I’m not going to teach them why we have off school on Monday. I’m afraid to talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in my classroom, because I don’t want consequences and angry community members storming our school board,’” Roberts said. “I know that is not what the bill says, but intended or not, that is the impact that these conversations are having in our classrooms.”
Ernest Crim III, a high school teacher in suburban Chicago known for his mrcrim3 TikTok videos of key figures in Black history said during a National Public Radio interview that “In every unit of study I look for examples of what Black and Latino people were doing at that time.”
Teaching an integrated view of history is “about changing your thoughts and that can change your entire generation. That can change your family. That could change, just the trajectory of your entire life,” Crimm said in the interview.
Tempe Union High School District Governing Board Member Berdetta Hodge shared how an experience in high school changed what Black history means to her.
“When I was 16 years old, I was the president of the Black Student Union of the State of Arizona, so I was invited to sit at an MLK Breakfast when MLK wasn’t even totally a holiday yet,” Hodge said.
Hodge said she remembered seeing Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou at the breakfast, and she felt intimidated at seeing in person these historic figures she’d read about “but didn’t know about the impact they’d had on life.”
ASBA video: Black History Month: Berdetta Hodge
Hodge said Angelou turned to her and asked, “What do you want to do with your life?”
“And at that point my mind was just blown, I was so afraid, and I said I want to go to college, and I started stuttering and going through what I wanted to do, and she grabbed my hand and said, ‘I’m going to tell you something. A sister will always know how to go out and get a job, but the sister who knows why in life will always be her boss,’” Hodge said.
“The people who have done so much for not just African Americans but for everyone should be honored throughout the whole year. As I will say always, Black history is our history and it should be put in where it’s needed not just in 28 days,” Hodge said.
A brief evolution of Black History Month
Carter G. Woodson founded a week in 1926 for “Black teachers to celebrate and talk about the contributions that Black people had made to America,” said Karsonya Wise Whitehead, founding executive director for the Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice at Loyola University to National Public Radio.
“He also understood that for Black students, to see themselves beyond their current situation, they had to be able to learn about the contributions that their ancestors had made to this country,” Whitehead said to National Public Radio.
That recognition week, which later grew into Black History Month, started five years after the Tulsa Race Massacre, seven years after the summer of 1919 when whites attacked Black neighborhoods and cities, and more than 60 years after the end of the Civil War when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was approved to end of slavery.
For many years, Black History Month highlighted the same heroes, included limited discussions in class, and added a few foods to the school cafeteria for that brief time.
Increased racism and hate in recent years has encouraged educators to find ways to discuss current events that deeply affect students’ lives, connect that with local, state and national history and policies, and encourage students’ civic engagement and involvement with community organizations develop solutions to challenges.
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Arizona schools, students take action after protests for justice and reform
Why Black History Month is important for all students
What’s happening now
Paradise Valley School District teachers use novels and texts to provide several points of view on Black history as well as explore modern movements, while Balsz School District in Phoenix provided teachers with professional development in 2020 on how to provide the Black American perspective on the history of the United States and also used The 1619 Project as an enrichment tool for their current curriculum.
This fall, 60 schools around the country will take part in a pilot program by with offering a new Advanced Placement course in African American studies developed by College Board over several years in partnership with college professors at historically Black colleges and universities, other college leaders, African American leaders, and national and local academic and cultural institutions.
The course will cover information ranging from medieval kingdoms of Africa to contemporary events in the United States and reflects in-depth scholarship, according to an Education Week article.
The AP course may also start conversations about what younger students should be learning, because “elementary kids are increasingly in very diverse schools. They work with each other, they play with each other, they’re sitting together in small groups,” said Lawrence Paska, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies to Education Week. “So, for them to be able to see themselves reflected in their curriculum materials, in their stories, I think, at an earlier age, that prepares them for this advanced level of study later.”