Black histories are important for everyone. Black History month is an opportunity for us as White families to lift up the need for all children to learn Black histories, and it’s a chance to open conversations about the ways we can make history more complex, reflective and inclusive all year long. We intentionally say “histories” in recognition that history is a collection of stories and that a part of working for liberation is moving away from the idea that there is one “History.” Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie discusses this beautifully in her talk “The danger of a single story.”
There is a role for White people in calling for more, deeper and more complex engagement in Black histories.
It is not White people’s role to decide what those histories should look like or how they should be taught, except in support of Black-led organizing and education. Lastly, many White anti-racist people are calling on us to look at the history of Whiteness -- not the history we are taught every day in school, but the histories of creating the categories of “White” and “Black” with the explicit goal of dividing and disempowering people of color and working class White people. This exploration asks us to look at the roles White people have played in creating or resisting a White power system.
This toolkit will talk about our mutual interest as White people in lifting up and calling for Black histories to be taught more widely. It will share online resources about Black histories so that we are not asking Black people of color in our communities to do the work of educating us, and we will offer up strategies to call in White community when Black History Month is being approached in problematic ways.
This toolkit will explore the following questions:
-- What are ways that White people can deepen conversations with children about race, racism and racial identity during Black History Month?
-- What are ways we can celebrate the contributions of Black civil rights and abolitionist heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman without erasing their radical work and while helping children understand racism not just as a historical legacy but as a current problem that still needs to be solved?
-- How do we improve the way we approach Black History Month, which too often highlights narrow examples of individual Black achievement in a way that ignores systems of racism.
This toolkit has been prepared specifically for White people to engage with other White people around Black History Month. Because is a nationally recognized event, we have an opportunity to teach our children more complex histories, learn about local events, challenge biased education, and engage our families in activism. Doing so not only supports racial justice organizing, it grows our understanding of justice and gives us an alternative to the violence of white supremacy.
About Black History Month
You can read a detailed history at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History page.
There are a variety of opinions on Black History Month in Black and African American communities. The Black Lives Matter movement is reinterpreting the month as “Black Futures Month” and using it to launch a reinterpretation of the resistance and resilience of Black people as illustrated through art as well as an Agenda To Build Black Futures. There are Black leaders, organizers, and scholars that believe Black History Month should be eliminated because it allows for the rest of the year to be centered around White figures and history. For more reading on this, see Let’s Get Rid of Black History Month. There are other people that believe Black History Month must be defended, but portrayed more accurately, such as journalist Melissa Harris Perry who wrote more about this in "American History Lessons." This is important dialogue to be aware of, but not for White people to contribute to. Instead, we need to be moving other White folks into action and accountable relationships with communities of color around them.
What Black led organizing is happening in your community? What issues do Black leaders care about? What opportunities are there for you to support their organizing? Do you follow Black leaders on social media and take opportunities to hear them present in real life? How are you beginning to build relationships with people of color and Black led organizing?
What circles are you in? What White spaces are you a part of where you can bring conversations about Black histories and explore the role of White people in creating unfair systems?
Regardless of this debate about how Black history is framed and introduced, there is a role for all of us, including White families, in making sure Black histories are being taught in more full, complex and challenging ways. Our children live in a smog of racism, and we have to actively counteract it unless we want our children to internalize it - as we saw early this year when a video of White girls disappointed about getting Black dolls for Christmas went viral.
Here are some examples of problematic ways that you might find Black History Month addressed (or not) and ideas about how to respond:
In your school or educational events
Schools offer an opportunity to call in parents, teachers, administrators, support staff, and young folks. Ask teachers and administrators how they plan on honoring Black History Month. From there, find opportunities to influence or even lead activities.
It is important to remember these tips are developed for White spaces and/or White led events. When in multiracial spaces, it is crucial to support the plans and align with the leadership of people of color in addressing these challenges in your school and community.
This article written for a Christian audience may help to open a conversation if you are a part of a church: The Importance Of Black History Month.
The next section provides concrete strategies to navigate Black History Month plans in your school or community:
There are no plans for Black History Month
“I asked my child’s teacher what the plans were for Black History Month and she looked shocked I would bring it up. She said, ‘We don’t need that anymore.’” - Pam, parent in Iowa City
Some schools, particularly in predominantly White communities, may not have any plans to acknowledge Black History Month. Some may question its importance. If teachers have not planned anything, try to explain how important Black History Month is to you. Ask other parents and students to do the same. Offer resources like The Origins of Black History Month, PBS Black Culture Connection, and the Zinn Education Project: African American History. If you are able, volunteer to lead an activity or donate books to the school for use in the future. If your teachers and administrators are resistant, consider asking for space to offer a before or after school event or organize a weekend event with other families to engage in Black History Month lessons.
Movements and Their Leaders
“People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Rosa Parks
Mainstream White education often simplifies and reduces the stories of Black leaders to avoid authentic conversations about race, racism, and movement work. One of the strongest examples is the story of Rosa Parks. Many school children learn a story about a tired old seamstress who decided on a whim to not give up her seat. Few learn that Rosa Parks had a long history of organizing, that her act of civil disobedience was planned with great intention, and that she was not the first person to use this tactic.
Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus years before, but her action didn’t spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott for a number of reasons. The focus on respectability politics at the time meant that movement leaders looked for a ‘respectable’ face of the boycott, and thought that a ‘emotional’ and ‘mouthy’ pregnant teenager would be discounted. This is in contrast with movements today that lift up the leadership of intersectional leaders and dismisses the idea that you have to meet some standard of ‘respectability’ to have your civil rights respected. It also puts the importance of movement building in context, Rosa Parks had a movement behind her, so the same action sparked wider change.
When engaging in Black History Month, we need to be sure that White educators and spaces are telling more full stories of Black leaders and placing them in the context of social justice movements.
Some children’s books to start with include:
Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Underground: Finding light to freedom by Shane W. Evans
Ruby Bridges Goes to School by Ruby Bridges
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer: Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford
There are great resources for educators, including Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching and Beyond Heroes and Holidays.
A narrow lens
“I was walking in a school and looking at the Black History Month biographies hanging in the hall. A majority of them were about athletes. There was a small handful of movement leaders: Harriet Tubman, MLK, Rosa Parks. The only scientist was George Washington Carver, and the only current political leader was President Obama. It’s the same every year.” Patrick, educator in CO
Every aspect of life in this country has been shaped by Black leaders, thinkers, writers, creatives, and academics in a time period that spans hundreds of years. Because of the tireless work of Black organizers, historians, and educators, White mainstream has been forced to acknowledge the legacies of some Black leaders. Often, these stories are very limited and inaccurate. As White people, we must keep lifting up diverse Black voices and stories in White spaces to demonstrate how White Supremacy distances us from some of our most powerful influences. Use Black History Month as a chance to push your school to explore both distant and recent history. During Black History Month and throughout the whole year, challenge tokenizing, and encourage highlighting Black leaders in all areas (science, art, politics, history, etc) who are women, transgender, disabled, poor, LGBQ, and other identities. Help your kids pick new figures to profile.
Naming whiteness without centering whiteness
“I thought Abolitionists were white...” O, 3rd grader in Boston
Whiteness often appears in Black History Month, but not where it needs to. While many lessons will discuss the roles of White Abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln, they typically do not name the roles of White people and White power in perpetuating slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the many other forms of racist violence. Often this creates the notions of “White saviors,” and dilutes the racist history of America.
Be sure that your school and community’s Black History Month lessons lift up Black Abolitionists and slave rebellions like this and this, instead of just focusing on White abolitionists like John Brown and Abe Lincoln. This counters mainstream stories that “slaves were content” or that emancipation is the result of “White saviors.” Help name that White people not only created Jim Crow Laws and the Klu Klux Klan, they received benefits from their existence.
The “We Don’t See Color” frame
“While white parents' intention is to convey to their children the belief that race shouldn't matter, the message their children receive is that race, in fact, doesn't matter. The intent and aim are noble, but in order for race not to matter in the long run, we have to acknowledge that, currently, it does matter a great deal.” Ali Michael and Eleonora Bartoli, What White Children Need to Know About Race.
Often accompanying Black History Month activities is the assertion that “we are all the same inside.” Many well-intended white people think that if we do not talk about race and if we highlight our differences then children will be less racist. This thinking assumes that any attention to race reinforces racial differences--without realizing that it is our inattention to racism that actually reinforces racial inequities.
Talking to White children about the systemic causes of racism and helping them discern racial stereotypes encourages them to see the connection between how they are racially advantaged and how people of color are disadvantaged. Read What White Children Need to Know About Race.
Racism as historical legacy rather than a contemporary problem
While celebrating the contributions of Black civil rights and abolitionist heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, help children understand that racism is not just a historical legacy but a current problem that still needs to be solved. Have conversations about Black Lives Matter and the current movements against police brutality, mass incarceration and other racial inequities. Talk about the differences between individual racism and systemic racism. Jay Smooth explains what it looks like to be systemically aware in this video: Moving the Race Conversation Forward
Also read Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza’s A Herstory of #Black Lives Matter
Overall points to lift up in your school
- Black History should not be isolated to the month of February. Black History is American History, and should be incorporated throughout the school year.
- Black voices should be at the center of Black History Month. Be sure to support Black authors, filmmakers, and artists as the first line of sources.
- Many schools are required--by contract or budget limitations--to purchase books from distributors like Scholastic. One way you can provide a lasting influence is to donate books. Many great titles, including the ones mentioned in this kit, can be found for less than $5 used. Some parents have used PTO/PTA or other parent groups to fundraise to get diverse books.
In your home and community
- You may not be able to influence everything your child learns at school. That gives you an opportunity to help develop their critical thinking and learning skills. Have a conversation about what kids are learning, and why the stories are told from the perspective that they are. Present alternative information.
- Participate in appropriate Black public spaces in respectful ways (museum, public events) and talk about it as a family.
- Explore history in your town. Find out about major events, local leaders, and talk about how that has influenced the community you live in now.
- Connect with local community. What is your local Black Lives Matter doing this month? Are there ways to support history in the making?
Just the beginning...
This toolkit, and Black History Month, are the beginning of the work, not the end. Look at the calendar for the year and think about how you can help your children and community get beyond White spaces and White history. Here are some ideas:
- Consider inviting White people in your circles to explore the history of Whiteness and the roles White people have played in creating or resisting systems of oppression. Be aware that this can be seen as focusing on White people in Black History Month and get broad community input on how you’d want to organize something like this.
- Examine the “hidden” histories of your own town, including the history of sundown towns and school segregation. For example: Does My Town Have a Racist Past? and other resources here and here.
- Talk with your schools about adding in elements of racial justice education or adopting anti-bias or anti-racist curriculum. Resources include:
Preschool to Age 8: NAEYC, including the book: “What If All The Children Are White?”
Resources for K-12 Educators: Rethinking Schools, Teachers 4 Social Justice, Teaching for Change, and Teaching Tolerance.
If you plan to participate in public events in your community that are not White spaces (for example, Black History Month events, but also Lunar New Year celebrations, Pow Wows or other cultural events), make sure they are open to the public and are spaces where White people are welcome. If an invitation has not been explicit, take the initiative to contact the event organizers and directly ask if it’s appropriate for White families to attend. Don’t just go into these spaces as consumers of culture; instead be reflective as an individual and a family. What does it feel like for you to be in a non-White space? What insight does this bring you about people of color in White spaces? And as you navigate those dynamics, think about how you can make the White spaces you are a part of in your schools and community, multicultural spaces where Black and other families of color are seen, celebrated and welcome.
Avoid centering whiteness; white supremacy already does that very well. As White folks, we often make ourselves the center of attention without realizing it, and then make it worse by reacting defensively if our behavior is pointed out to us. Do some homework before going into non-White space, and be open to feedback. Like in any other social context, look for meaningful connection. Don’t be afraid to talk with Black people or other people who are different than you, but also don’t expect to leave the event with a new Black best friend. These celebrations will likely welcome you, but they are not about you, so be humble and thoughtful about how you show up. Consider inviting people you may meet whose work is educating children about their history into your children’s classroom and be willing to pay them speaker’s fees for their work. Don’t assume people of color should educate you for free. Finally, be mindful of cultural misappropriation and avoid contributing to it!
SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability. We work to connect people across the country while supporting and collaborating with local and national racial justice organizing efforts. SURJ provides a space to build relationships, skills, and political analysis to act for change.
Thanks to everyone who contributed their time, energy, work and feedback to create this Action Kit.