Lucretia Berry • February 6, 2024
I teach an Antiracism 101 elective for high school students. The elective is meticulously designed to enhance students’ capacity to comprehend racism in its institutional and structural dimensions. The course intentionally departs from traditional narratives centered on personal biases, and delves into a comprehensive analysis of racism’s historical, cultural, and systemic underpinnings including the historical context for pioneering Negro History Week.
To be clear, our nation’s racism is not Black history. However, our nation’s history of documented, strategic racism made necessary Carter G. Woodson’s dynamic contributions.
Why was Negro History Week created?
My favorite resource for helping students understand the evolution of anti-Black consciousness in the United States is the 1986 documentary film, Ethnic Notions directed by Marlon Riggs. Ethnic Notions takes viewers on a disturbing voyage through American history, tracing the deep-rooted anti-Black narratives that permeated popular culture from the ante-bellum period until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The film’s analysis helps us understand why honest history education was and is necessary for the collective American identity.
To counteract Misrepresentation and Erasure: Woodson wanted to counter the prevalent narrative of Black Americans being marginalized or omitted entirely from history books and curricula. At that time, mainstream historical accounts largely ignored or downplayed the contributions and achievements of Black Americans. Negro History Week aimed to rectify this by highlighting the significant role African Americans played in shaping American and world history.
To Celebrate Black Achievement: Woodson sought to celebrate the achievements, culture, and contributions of Black Americans to society. He believed that recognizing and honoring these contributions were essential for the empowerment and pride of Black Americans and for fostering greater understanding and appreciation among ALL Americans.
For Education and Awareness: By dedicating a specific week to the study and celebration of Black American history, Woodson aimed to promote education and awareness about the rich and diverse history of Black Americans. He believed that through education, people could combat prejudice, discrimination, and racism.
Understanding the historical context for creating Negro History Week is crucial for informing educational choices. Knowledge of the historical marginalization and erasure of Black Americans’ lived experiences and triumphs underscore the importance of representation in education. By acknowledging and integrating the contributions and experiences of Black Americans into curricula, we provide a more honest and accurate portrayal of American history, thus fostering a collective American identity.
Whether you believe we need a Black History Month or that having a designated month perpetuates tokenization and segregation of history, you can agree that studying its historical context encourages critical thinking skills by prompting students to question dominant narratives and explore the complexities of history. By examining how race, power, and privilege have influenced historical interpretations, students can develop a more nuanced understanding of the past and its implications for the present.
- Why were anti-Black narratives conjured and spread?
- Why was Negro History Week necessary in the first place?
- Why was Negro History Week in February?
- What were Woodson’s goals for documenting honest history?
- When and why was Negro History Week expanded to Black History Month?
- Create an account at Facing History and Ourselves. Watch Ethnic Notions and explore more history lessons.
- Understand Black American history as honest American history.
- Integrate the stories and contributions of Black Americans throughout the entire year, not just February.
- In the classroom, expect children who are not Black to bare some responsibility for knowing honest history, not just Black students.
- Teach students who are not Black to not stare at Black students when the lesson highlights a Black person. Students don’t stare at the girls when the lesson is about a woman.