In September of 1915, historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). ASNLH was dedicated to researching and highlighting the achievements of Black people in American and all peoples of African descent. To that end, ASNLH, under the direction Dr. Woodson, established Negro History Week to promote and celebrate the long history of accomplishments of Black people in America.
Thanks to the freedom fighters throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Negro History Week evolved into Black History Month because of a growing awareness among Black people of Black identity and the freedom fighters of the Civil Rights Movement and, in 1976, it was recognized by President Ford.
There has been a growing debate as to the usefulness or necessity of Black History Month. When engaging in these debates, I am reminded of the words of Dr. Woodson, who said of Negro History Week (which became Black History Month):
In 2016, a group of educators, parents and activists in Seattle, Washington organized a week of activities for racial justice in schools with the goal of teaching students about systemic racism, Black history and the Black experience through traditional lessons, discussions, and social action.
It is not so much a Negro History Week as a History Week. We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice. There should be no indulgence in undue eulogy of the Negro. The case of the Negro is well taken care of when it is shown how he has influenced the development of civilization.
At the core of the week of education is a mandate for school and district leaders to do the following, as articulated by high school humanities teacher Jesse Hagopian: (1) End zero tolerance, (2) make mandatory Black history and ethnic studies courses, (3) hire more Black teachers, and (4) fund (install) counselors, not law enforcement.
This activism was framed as Black Lives Matter at School. News of the week of activities spread such that educators nationwide participate in national activities to teach students about systemic racism, its impact on the lives of Black people and the advocacy and activist activities at their disposal to address it, in their classrooms.
The founders created a resource website, whereby educators can access a host of resources including guiding principles, a starter kit, publications, curriculum resources and a lists of activities held throughout the country. Philly teachers built on this work and imagined and implemented, Black Lives Matter Week of Action.
It should be noted that 83% of white educators believe that Black lives do indeed matter. The Philadelphia School District observes Black Lives Matter at School Week and New Jersey’s largest teacher’s union, New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), also recognizes the week of education and empowerment. It is my hope that more school districts and educators around the country endorse the Black Lives Matter at School Week and teach and lead like Black lives and minds matter daily.
Yet, it’s said by a few wayward people that Black Lives Matter, as an organization, is a hate group, and therefore anything associated with it is associated with hate. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which publishes an annual census of public hate groups, has said that Black Lives Matter is not a hate group and explained why. What the Southern Poverty Law Center has also published a report detailing how schools across the country aren’t adequately teaching the history of American enslavement – which is one of the many areas Black Lives Matter at Schools Week attempts to address.
Nevertheless, the same debate about the necessity of Black History Month can be had around about the necessity of Black Lives Matter at Schools Week; do we even need it?
Certainly, the data affirms that we do.
Zero tolerance disciplinary policies contribute to the disproportionate suspensions and arrests of Black students. Few, if any, school districts mandate Black history courses in schools; history textbooks abound in schools where American history is whitewashed and Black history is untold.
Nationally, Black teachers only make up roughly 7% of teachers; meanwhile research shows that Black student academic outcomes improve with having at least one Black teacher. Lastly, according to the ACLU, 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselors, social workers, nurses, or school psychologists and nineteen states still allow for children to be beat in school, many of them Black.
But there is also another justification for Black Lives Matter at Schools Week and Black lives mattering every week.
What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.
With respect to Black Lives Matter at Schools, I would borrow from Dr. Woodson and say that we need care and regard for students void of national bias, race hate and religious prejudice. Black lives mattering at schools across the country looks like educators living that each day concerning Black students. Black Lives Matter at Schools is here to remind educators that they must.
It would be nice for Black history to be properly incorporated within history curriculum whereby February isn’t the only time students learn about, let alone hear the names of, Toussaint L’Overture, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Fanny Lou Hamer, Vicente Guerrero and John Horse, the leader of the Black Seminoles. Likewise, it would be nice to not have to remind white people that Black lives matter… it’d be nice not to have to remind some Black folk of that also, but I digress.
These dedicated times of remembrance and recognition, Black Lives Matter at Schools Week and Black History Month, are important to educate all people of the humanity of Black people, but it is also a moment of celebration, renewal, and empowerment for Black people. It is an opportunity for educators to actively put the humanity of Black children at the front of their educational agenda and a reminder for them to do so each day.
It is a reminder for white educators to challenge themselves daily regarding their whiteness, the implication for Black students when they leverage it as a weapon against them and the implications for Black life because society has weaponized whiteness. A reminder to not place Black history in their laptop folders – so infrequently used that file searches are needed to bring them back to the forefront.
One day, maybe, the humanity of Black life will be honored systemically in our society. The insurrection of January 6th makes me think otherwise and confirms the need for moments of observance such as these. However, education is a tactic to bring the United States to a place where Black life can be regarded as human. Dr. Woodson once said that the imparting of information is not an education; rather real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.
Let’s use Black Lives Matter Week to inspire us all to live more abundantly by staring with their schools as they find it and make it better for Black children.