Every February, schools around the nation commemorate the accomplishments of African Americans by highlighting them through Black History Month lessons and programs. Some celebrate with school plays, guest speakers or hallway exhibits of locally and nationally known black figures.
Educators like Jameca Falconer, adjunct professor and director of Webster University’s Applied Educational Psychology and School Psychology program, believe it is the duty of parents of all races — as well as the community — to not limit interest in black culture to February.
“Your children have to see you discussing these issues all year-round. Not just in February, but summer, fall and winter,” Falconer said. “Your children have to see you interacting with black people. They have to see you connecting with other groups of people in order for the lessons to stick.”
Author and historian Carter G. Woodson created the celebration of black life in February 1926 as Negro History Week. It was a way for children to discover the vast contributions that African Americans made to society.
Woodson wanted to preserve the stories of black entertainers, authors, inventors and countless others who fought for the equality of black people. In 1976, Negro History Week became Black History Month, but it still served the same purpose.
Over the years, some have questioned whether communities still need Black History Month to tell them about all things black. To Falconer, “The answer is yes, because in 2020, we are still not in the place where African Americans are seen as equally having contributed to the foundation of America.”
Falconer said teaching black history has evolved since the inception of the month. And focusing on one aspect of black history does Americans as a whole a disservice, while discussing the culture in its entirety ensures a fuller and broader understanding.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson spoke to Falconer about current ways to teach black history, what aspects of African American history should be highlighted more and why black history is American history.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Andrea Henderson: African American history dates back centuries and spans across cultures. So, regardless of race, where would parents or educators start when talking about the many contributions of black people?
Jameca Falconer: Most of that would depend on the age group that you're speaking to. So, if you're dealing with little children, you would have to start with the basics like, “Who are you?” “What color are you?” “Do you know that is a race?” and “Do you know that you're different from the next person, and why?” Then, as you go up in ages, like middle schoolers and high schoolers, you can talk about more complex theories, ideas and movements that maybe younger children wouldn't understand. But it really depends on the perspective of the person.
Henderson: Oftentimes when Black History Month comes around, you hear the same history lessons. What's a comprehensive approach to teaching black history that's not repetitive or uneventful?
Falconer: A comprehensive approach to teaching black history would be an approach that really encompasses all things that are black. So, not just the major players like Martin Luther King [Jr.] and Rosa Parks. We always hear about those, but I think the only way you can have a really complex understanding of the role of African Americans in this country is to look at black people all across the span of every area. So that's the arts, that's music, that's literature, that sports. It's really everything — education and politics. You have to look at all the pieces and not just focus on one era, which most people do, and it tends to be the civil rights movement.
Henderson: When you're talking about black history in general, what are some specific topics that you feel you must discuss when teaching black history?
Falconer: I think when you talk about black history, the main pieces that pretty much everyone should cover would be starting from the beginning — slavery. When and why did African Americans come to this country? When you start there, it really kind of paints the picture of the whole rest of the story. In other words, talk about the Middle Passage and what that was like, and then you would probably go up through some other political parts of that, like the Underground Railroad, the 14th and 15th Amendments, Voting Rights Act and civil rights movement. Then talk about different types of activism and the ways we really have progressed and talk about some of the ways that we haven't as a culture.
Henderson: Do you feel that it is necessary to talk about African life pre-slavery?
Falconer: I think it could be crucial, but I'm not sure that it's as necessary when talking about some of the major facts that have occurred in this country. But I would say for most African Americans growing up in the U.S., they probably have seen it in movies or their parents told them about some of that African history.
Henderson: If you are a parent who does not identify as African American, what steps or approaches should they take when they are talking to their children about Black History Month?
Falconer: Now, in 2020, there are so many resources that we did not have available to us when I was growing up in the '70s and '80s. You have websites, you have books, you have movies, you have documentaries, you have music. You can go on Google or YouTube and pull up lectures of prominent black scholars and look at some of the history lessons that way as well.
Henderson: Do you feel that is the parent's responsibility to teach black history?
Falconer: I think the responsibility of teaching black history should be on the parents, teachers and the community. And I feel like the community does not do a really good job of it. I don't feel like all the responsibility should fall on teachers because children are only in school eight hours a day, and they are at home the other 16 hours of the day. And for most parents and families, I don't feel like this should only be going on in February. It really has to occur all year-round. And for parents who are not African American, your children have to see you discussing these issues all year-round. Not just in February, but summer, fall and winter. Your children have to see you interacting with black people. They have to see you connecting with other groups of people in order for the lessons to stick.
Henderson: How important do you feel it is not only to teach black history from around the globe, but to teach local black history?
Falconer: I think teaching local black history is as important, because you have a couple of different facets of understanding black history. Of course, you have the national level, and then when you look at the local level, it is what helps you understand the trajectory of African Americans in your area, and sometimes that experience can be different. So, the experience of African Americans in St. Louis could be very different from the experience of African Americans in Jackson, Mississippi. But once you understand the St. Louis history, then it will help you understand the mentality and the thinking. I feel like most people in St. Louis probably think the activism and segregation struggles really started with the Michael Brown [Jr.] case, and it did not at all. The Michael Brown [Jr.] case was really the culmination of the frustration and discrimination that has been in St. Louis since forever.
Henderson: Children are more vocal now when it comes to the type of education that they want to have. And when it comes to history, they often say they are tired of hearing about slavery and they want a full experience of black people. How do you get children excited about Black History Month?
Falconer: To get children excited about Black History Month, I think you would have to connect with the individual values and interests of the children, and that could be different depending on what classroom of children you are talking to. So for instance, if you are speaking to an elementary class that is mostly boys, then you would probably be safe to talk about black history in the context of sports and segregation. Then you can refer back to people like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and talk about the barriers that they had to break. But it will be totally different if you were speaking to a room full of girls. And it will be totally different if you are speaking to high schoolers that are about to go to college, then you will have to connect with them on more world issues and things that would affect them as a young adult.
Henderson: Are there any other aspects that you believe should be highlighted when it comes to Black History Month that we normally forget to discuss?
Falconer: I feel like many times every year, in February, we focus a lot on the men who are central to African American history. So again, Martin Luther King [Jr.], some people talk about Malcolm X and now we may talk about Barack [Obama] since it’s after his term. But I think what they leave out are a lot of the women. So women like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Madam C.J. Walker. Now, they talk more about some of the scientists like Katherine Johnson with the movie "Hidden Figures," but before that, there was really no mention of [women].
Henderson: Do you feel that black history is American history?
Falconer: I feel like black history is definitely American history. Parts of black history is the dirty, dark side of American history that people don't want to talk about. But this country would not be where it is today without the contributions of black people.
Henderson: Tell me one good reason why we need to celebrate Black History Month not only in February, but throughout the rest of the year.
Falconer: It's important that we highlight the significant contributions of black people in this country, because if we don't do that, then over time those contributions will be minimized or ignored.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea on Twitter at @drebjournalist.
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