To See How Black History Month is Evolving, Go to School

By Yohuru Williams | @YohuruWilliamsyohuruwilliams.net | Originally published on The Progressive | February 6, 2018 | Republished with Permission from Yohuru Williams | Syndication made possible through Patreon

By Yohuru Williams

Black History Month is increasingly marked with hollow representations of black history marketed by corporate America. This year’s Super Bowl offered a prime example when automaker Ram grossly misrepresented a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a commercial to sell trucks.

But for this year’s Black History Month, a host of activists, athletes, and educators have launched an important and substantive alternative: asking schools to set aside February 5 to 9 as “Black Lives Matter at School Week.”

The organizers see the action as both an opportunity to teach lessons on structural racism and hidden black history and identities, and to make demands to rectify the devastating impact of racist disciplinary practices on students of color.

In fact, this call for Black Lives Matter at School Week follows a long tradition of education as a means to liberation and empowerment stretching back to the origins of Black History Month itself.

Black historian Carter Woodson established “Negro History Week” in 1926, ostensibly to combat ignorance about the contributions of black people to civilization and also as a means of uplift. Born into a world where Jim Crow segregation prevailed, Woodson recognized the importance of education as a tool for a positive sense of identity, affirmation, and liberation.

Negro History Week officially became Black History Month in 1976. Though our modern celebration of this time is often superficial and leans heavily on black celebrities, this was not always the case. At that time, the February observance was a highly regarded, community-focused event celebrating a range of black artists, educators, scientists, and inventors. Their stories of success despite racial prejudice illustrated not only the capability but the dignity and worth of black people.

As Woodson saw it, “The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples.”

This cornerstone of structural racism remains evident to this day in schools, from the dearth of black teachers and the detrimental impact of excessive punishments on students, to the absence of black and brown people’s experiences from the curriculum.

It’s also made plain in the pronouncements of elected officials like President Donald Trump. During his visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Trump paid lip service to the need for Americans to become aware of the contributions of African Americans like Frederick Douglass. He identified the abolitionist orator, publisher and diplomat, who died in 1895, as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”

But the goal of events like Negro History Week, Black History Month, and Black Lives Matter at School Week is not simply for black and brown people to become “recognized more and more” in the sanitized way Frederick Douglass and others are often remembered. The underlying purpose is to actually achieve the ends they fought for.

What Black Lives Matter at School Week proposes to do speaks as powerfully in this historical moment as Woodson’s push for “Negro History Week” did nearly a century ago. Woodson believed Black people needed to embrace and internalize an accurate reflection of a proud past that would also serve as a mechanism for self-defense. Without this sense of history Woodson wondered whether those receiving an education would be “actually equipped to face the ordeal before them or unconsciously contribute to their own undoing by perpetuating the regime of oppressor.”

These words carry powerful currency for a generation of black and brown students now growing up in the shadow of what may prove to be the most significant retrenchment of black civil rights since the post-Reconstruction period. Historians may well one day look back at today’s rise of racist incidents and the rollback of protections for black voting rights—such the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder—as a new nadir.

As such, it is vitally important that communities band together with educators this week—and every week thereafter—to press for restorative andtransformative justice. As Woodson observed, “the mere imparting of information is not education.” The true measure of our educational commitment to racial justice will be our actions.

Yohuru Williams is an education activist and professor of history and dean at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He is on the board of directors for the Network for Public Education. He is contributing author to United We Stand – Essays on Protest and Resistance

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