The classroom Hassan describes, however, is hardly the norm. Teacher materials produced for February’s celebration of black history are often limited to the most-celebrated black Americans—Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks—with a smattering of black athletes and entertainers tossed in. Raquel Willis, a writer and racial-justice activist in Atlanta, remembers annual Black History Month school displays in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, as neither memorable nor notable. “There was always a focus on the civil-rights movement and it was as if black history stopped once Dr. King died,” Willis said. “We rarely learned about anyone new from year to year, and we also didn’t get a context of different time periods. I would’ve loved to have delved into African history, the Harlem Renaissance, black life in the 1970s, and beyond.”
The problem lies not with specialized months to commemorate marginalized groups and communities, said Willis, but with schools that fail to incorporate the full range of diversity as part of their mission. “If there is a concerted effort to approach Black History Month in new ways each year, then we can combat some of the issues of only highlighting certain movements, figures, and events,” she said. Also, learning more about black women and LGBTQ individuals in her formative years would have put her more at ease identifying as a transgender woman.
“It shouldn’t have taken 20 years for me to learn about Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, and Marsha P. Johnson,” said Willis. “As well, I think it’s of the utmost importance to highlight the figures of today. We tend to only highlight contemporary celebrities and politicians, ignoring that we have activists and community organizers that are still making an impact on a daily basis.”
One person who fits that description is Blake Simons, the deputy communications director for the Afrikan Black Coalition, a statewide collective of black students in California. Before Simons was a student organizer he was a high-schooler in the California Bay Area, and his memories of Black History Month are still sharp. “I was the elephant in the room, or rather the token Negro, who was supposed to represent the entire race when students had questions about black history,” said Simons, who was often on the receiving end of questions and awkward stares as the only black child in predominately white classrooms.
He said growing up it was always confusing why black history was only limited to one month. Since schools he attended never taught Simons about Woodson, “it made me feel as if my ancestors’ worth was only valuable in the shortest month of the year.” Recalling his schooling, Simons now rejects the one-dimensional portrayals of black historical figures. “Teachers often times painted Rosa Parks as only an activist who protested segregation on buses. When this is done, it erases the fact that Rosa Parks organized against sexual assault,” he said.
Moving forward, Simons would like to see black history taught every day, in his view the only legitimate way to build racial and cultural understanding—and reflecting the spirit of Woodson’s words and intentions. “Black history should be celebrated every day, because all history begins with black history. When black history is not taught throughout the year, it is reinforcing anti-blackness.”