It is bad enough that Black History Month has turned into four highly commercialized weeks of using Rosa Parks’s face or Martin Luther King’s stirring words to sell things. But for many black parents it has also become a time of increased stress as we support our children (and each other) through the guffaws and fails that often do more to harm black children than to lift up black culture.
So in the service of equity, truth-telling and the psychological well-being of our children, I collected ideas and suggestions from black parents, and gathered expert opinions and recommendations from racial equity strategists, educators and people who talk about this country’s harsh history for a living. Consider these 10 suggestions a first step toward reaching the full potential of the month.
Black history is not just slavery and civil rights. There is a lot more. “Black History Month will never reach its potential without the complete and ongoing accounting of the way people of African descent have been thought leaders, builders, designers, creators, pioneers, scientists, farmers, philosophers, musicians, medical practitioners, soldiers and educators throughout history,” says Dionne Grayman, a staff developer at Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility.
History needs to be taught differently. Part of the problem, experts say, is how American history has been taught in schools. “Most of us have learned American history as a heroic and mythical celebration of our Founding Fathers and it is just not true,” says Brandon Dillard, manager of special programs at Monticello, the historic plantation of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and a slave owner. “We need to be teaching inclusive history. Not as a way to tear down our heroes but as a way to lift up other voices. We do that by telling the story of those whose stories have been left out in the past.”
Don’t whitewash slavery. One year my son came home from school during Black History Month stating the teacher said there were “happy slaves,” as evidenced by their singing. To be clear, singing during slavery was also a form of communication, often with hidden codes, and it was a way to stay hopeful while enduring inhumane conditions. When I arrived at school the next day to address the teacher, she stated that she had portrayed it that way because she didn’t want to “upset” the children.
“In my experience, which parents don’t want to talk about slavery depends more on the privilege and bias of the adult, rather than anything about the child,” says Dillard. “Children learn that people were guillotined in the French Revolution or thrown to lions in the Bible — the hesitation only comes because this is cruelty to humans based on racism.”
If you’re going to talk about slavery, do it properly. Take some tips from the staff at Monticello, who talk about slavery daily. “For very young children we may start with the concept of fairness and discuss what it means to be a slave,” says Carrie Soubra, house tour supervisor and digital learning coordinator. For middle-schoolers and up, the program managers suggest conversations about racism and injustice. And because Thomas Jefferson fathered a child with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, there are often discussions with teens about power dynamics and consent. Also, slavery should not be treated as a thing that started and ended without discussing its role in building wealth in this country and the enduring impact of racial oppression, adds Grayman, a former educator.
Educators must step up. Teaching Hard History, a 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that only 8 percent of the high school seniors they surveyed could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Educators and textbooks are failing to adequately teach the history of American slavery and as a result “students lack a basic knowledge of the important role it played in shaping the United States and the impact it continues to have on race relations in America,” the report said.
“How many teachers know how to approach a lesson about our country’s complex and complicated history about the stolen lands and stolen hands that created the wealth that made this country great?” asks Grayman, who is also a healing justice consultant and a BMe Vanguard fellow. “Until teacher education programs conduct an overhaul of their content to be more inclusive and accurate, what happens at the school level will always be negligent.”
Help your child be anti-racist. “Talk to your kids about racism. Explore what they are seeing on TV and social media and support them in making meaning.” says Simran Noor, a New York-based equity strategist and principal at Noor Consulting. Young children should have a normalcy around blackness, including representation in their dolls and books. “For tweens and teens who are developing critical thinking skills, have conversations about their privilege, such as, ‘How do you benefit from white supremacy as a white teenager? How might your experience be different from your black peer with the police, for example?’ ” adds Noor, who facilitates anti-racism training across the country. Make sure your kids consider marginalized voices and perspectives when working on school projects.
Show kids how to be an ally. The best way to teach this is by example. “Parents need to equip their child with how to speak up when they see injustice, but parents have to model this. Ask yourself, ‘Where and how do I show my kids how to do this?’” Noor says. This could include taking out a cellphone to record if a black friend is being harassed, or helping to gather witness names after a school incident. Noor also suggests moving to a co-liberation model. “Talk about how your freedom is bound up with the freedom of others. Too often we see whites as a non-impacted group coming to save those most impacted. White supremacy and racism impacts us all, and framing it more collectively starts with our young people,” she says.
Choose resources carefully. SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance website has information on how to facilitate conversations about race with students of all ages. Charis Books, a feminist bookstore, has curated a list of books for kids on race and allies. The team at Monticello recommends books such as “Henry’s Freedom Box” and “My Name Is James Madison Hemings” for younger children. The National Education Association and the Monticello Teacher Institute provide resources and training sessions on discussing difficult history.
The n-word is off limits, no matter how much your kids love hip-hop. A few summers ago, my daughter attended a summer program put on by a mainstream national newspaper. At the closing party, the DJ played hip-hop songs omitting the n-word, but a group of white teens decided to sing it out anyway. The few black students were shocked, and the staff didn’t intervene. When I approached the program leadership, their first response was that the word was “in the culture” and there wasn’t much they could do. To which I responded, “In whose culture?”
The problem comes down to white privilege and an entitled mind-set that “everything belongs to you,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates, the best-selling author and journalist explained in a viral video. Privilege makes some white people feel as though they have a right to do anything, including use a word they have been repeatedly told is inappropriate, Coates explains.
“For white people, I think the experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the [n-word ] will be very insightful,” Coates said. “This will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do.”
Think beyond February. “Black history is American history is world history,” Noor says. “The month could spark a collective reckoning for the nation to both mourn the darkness that is the history of enslaving and oppressing a people while also celebrating the resilience and amazing contributions of black people. That project of reckoning has to go well beyond a month.”
Kimberly Seals Allers is a journalist and author of five books who writes about motherhood and the intersection of race, class and policy. She is the founder of IRTH, a soon-to-be launched app to capture and address experiences of bias in maternity and infant health care. Follow @iamKSealsAllers and @theIrthApp to learn more.