My Turn: Education key to building a nation where Black lives matter

  • weinberger weinberger

Published: 2/21/2021 7:40:51 AM

Until this year, my awareness of Black History Month was usually triggered by the February display window of Broadside Books in Northampton, which featured an array of books celebrating African American culture and history.

Stopping to read the titles was the extent of my participation. I confess that I have little interest in monthlong “celebrations” of marginalized groups that perpetuate the continued exclusion of historically oppressed groups from mainstream culture. There has never been a need for a White History Month, because knowledge of white culture is a prerequisite for survival in this country. A 28- or 29-day celebration that competes with Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day keeps Black people within the margins of society.

Today, however, in these pandemic times, my inbox has been flooded with invitations to an array of virtual Black History Month events. I can take a virtual tour of the African-American Heritage Trail sponsored by the Florence-based Sojourner Truth Committee, learn about Black jazz greats at Lincoln Center’s Swing University, or view the collection of African American Artists at The National Gallery of Art, without having to leave home.

Curious, I decided to educate myself about the origins of Black History Month. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African Life and History, in 1926, deemed the second week of February, (the birth week of President Lincoln and Frederick Douglas), as Negro History Week, “to collectively celebrate our racial pride as well as collectively assess white America’s commitment to its professed ideals of freedom.” (ASALH.org)

A movement followed in the mid-1960s to make Negro History Week a monthlong event. In February 1976, President Gerald Ford, in a proclamation marking the first official monthlong observance, declared that, “IN THE Bicentennial year of our Independence, we can review with admiration the impressive contributions of black Americans to our national life….” In 1986, the U.S. Congress designated February as National Black History Month. Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Proclamation 5443 noted that, “the foremost purpose of Black History Month is to make all Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity.”

The origin story of Black History Month is a meaningful one, but the monthlong acknowledgment of Black history falls short of its stated purposes. For millions of Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent election have been a crash course on our nation’s long history of racial oppression, as well as the extraordinary organizing abilities of African Americans, the latter demonstrated by the Black Lives Matter protests and the pivotal role that Black voters played in electing President Biden.

Anyone who is paying attention has learned that white privilege has made possible a standard of living that continues to be inaccessible to millions of Black people. In a country where white people, on average, possess 10 times the monetary wealth of Black people, living in a neighborhood with accessible health care, supermarkets, public transportation, clean air, quality schools and policing that protects one’s community, is an impossible dream for even middle-class Black people.

In 2021, our schools continue to offer students, regardless of skin color, a narrative of Black people limited mostly to slavery, emancipation, and the civil rights movement. I would guess that few people can name African Americans who have made significant contributions to this country that go beyond sports, music and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In our socially segregated society, empathy for Black people is often in short supply. I remember the resistance my white social work students had to taking a mandatory course entitled, “American Culture and The Black Experience.” They reacted defensively to their Black instructors’ lessons on systemic racism, complaining that, “She’s trying to make me feel guilty.” “He’s angry at white people.” “It’s not my fault.” “Why can’t they get over the past?”

Education centered on the history and experiences of Black people is a prerequisite to building a nation where Black lives matter just as much as white lives do. In 2005, Philadelphia became the first and only district in the country to require a year-long course in African American history as a prerequisite for graduation. More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has motivated several states to call for the inclusion of content focused on Black studies, including stand-alone high school courses.

The tragedy is that most of these high school courses are offered as electives. Generating a supply of teachers, developing and making space for curriculum, and funding the costs of training educators is a huge challenge, not to mention parents, school personnel and community members resistant to efforts to change systems that have maintained the myth of white superiority and Black inferiority.

Education is a crucial weapon in the war against white supremacy. We must push for a comprehensive national curriculum that provides students and educators with an understanding and appreciation of what it means to be Black in the United States, both past and present. Integrating such curriculum into the K-12 education of every student can go a long way to building a racially just and inclusive society. Until then, Black History Month is an annual reminder that we’re not there yet.

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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