Don’t Ignore Black Joy When Teaching Black History

After reading, “Why does Black History Month Matter?” I was reminded that the previous month was the  right time to celebrate Black joy and Black educators. For me, Black History Month isn’t just about honoring the “contributions” of previous activists and liberators. Let’s be honest folks, recently it has seemed that Black History Month was not created for Black people, it was created to let all other non-Black people specifically learn about Black contributions to our country. But, Dr. Carter. G. Woodson did create it for us – to celebrate us, for our own edification, and for our collective work, responsibility, and accountability.

My classroom in West Philadelphia is made up of 99.9% students of color. To celebrate Black joy I give every student an outline of a Sankofa bird. Inside the Sankofa bird it says, “I’m Black and beautiful because…” 

Students are directed to finish that sentence and then decorate the bird with whatever means (markers, colored pencils, and paint were provided). For me, Black History Month provides Black students with the opportunity to honor themselves. I have said this before, but teaching African American History is hard, and I would argue teaching such history in a way that does not re-traumatize Black students is even harder. So no, I’m not having them create a generic poster about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, or Harriet Tubman about what they “did” or “contributed” to make America better. During this month I always have my Black students focus on themselves and what makes them Black and beautiful. 

What I appreciated the most about this assignment is the way it helped shape positive racial identity. There was a student in my honors class that came to me and said they did not know what to write. I asked the student what they liked about him/her self, and the student could not mention one aspect. I then asked the student what they were good at and I listed responses on an index card. The day before Sankofa birds were due, the student came to me again and said they had lost their index card. I repeated the index card exercise, but this time enlisted other teachers. Each of the teachers were able to share a positive quality about this student. I immediately observed this small activity providing encouragement to the student.   

This assignment also provides me with the necessary reminder on how diverse my Black students are. I post previous work examples, and students are inspired by the images they see of previous family members, Haitian, Trinidadian, Jamaican, and Ghanaian flags in the background. My first few years of teaching I made the false assumption that all my students and their families were from West Philadelphia. This assignment reveals how diverse, but connected Black people are. The voices of Caribbean or West African students used to be, due to lack of experience, unfortunately silent in my room. I am proud to say that activities like this have built an inclusive classroom culture and encouraged students to celebrate and honor their racial identity. 

I also want to emphasize that for my students and I, Black History Month is not just EVERY month, but EVERY day. The day before their Sankofa birds were due, I asked students if they thought we needed a Black History Month and their opinions were diverse and the debate got heated. I was happy to witness students having an authentic discussion on whether or not Black people’s lives need to be highlighted in this national way. The conversation led to meaningful discussion about to what extent Black people’s lives, history, and contributions are integral to all parts of American life and celebrations.

Check out a variety of their responses.  

Student 1 – “Yes we do need Black history month. It shouldn’t just be taken lightly. We need to know or at least be aware of our history because if we don’t the new generations would be more and more unaware of how lucky they are to be able to walk down the street and not be called out of their name or be able to have true friends that are different races.”

Student 2 – “I say yes and no. I say this because we should celebrate Black history all year around due to all the injustices and racism going on. But also because this is the time of year where white students and teachers have to learn and teach about our history and I love that because they need to know the truth and the whole truth.”

Student 3 – “No, I believe we deserve more than the shortest month of the year to display our freedom and what we did to get here.”

Lastly, due to book bans and critical race theory laws, I truly believe that now more than ever Africana Studies should be incorporated to all curriculum, no matter the subject. We need Africana Studies because of the beauty of Mother Africa and the reality of the African Diaspora. After all, every single day of the year is a part of Black History Month.

Thank you, Dr. Carter G. Woodson.


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