Black History Month is more important than ever

The term “critical race theory” has become a lightning rod to justify curriculum and book bans on texts some people deem controversial because they include discussions of racial issues.

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Black icons and on posters and a mural in Washington, D.C.

Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images

It’s February, and besides the mask mandate controversies, winter weather days and kids handing out valentine cards, many schools across America are also teaching students about important people and events in Black history.

As a white high school librarian who worked in Chicago Public Schools for 15 years and now in a suburban high school just outside the city, I have seen how different schools provide different learning experiences.

I began my career at Corliss High School on the Far South Side, which served a predominantly Black population. I fondly remember carpentry students designing and building a museum-like exhibit of the Underground Railroad that students and teachers eagerly came down to visit. The exhibit ended up running beyond February.

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For eight years, I then worked at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood, which at the time served a student population that was around 70% Black. Together with staff, students put together awe-inspiring assemblies with music, poetry and dance that highlighted Black achievement.

Now, at my own children’s suburban elementary school, my son’s class is learning about different Black historical figures and patching together a quilt about them.

And at my current school, East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, our communications director sends information in a weekly newsletter and uses social media to highlight Black history. In our library, I’ve put together documents and media at different stations, asking classes to read texts about the Middle Passage, the Tulsa race massacre, civil rights protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the past, some have argued that Black History Month is unnecessary, for a slew of reasons — including that Black history should be taught every day, not just relegated to one month. In 2015, actor and icon Morgan Freeman echoed this view and called Black History Month “ridiculous,” adding that Black history is American history, and he didn’t want a stand-alone month.

As an educator, I want to live in a world where Black history, culture and literature are part of the curriculum year-round. But the reality is they’re not. And truth be told, American students have limited, haphazard exposure to diverse histories and cultures.

Many elementary students don’t have social studies as part of the full year-long curriculum. Even in high schools, different topics are studied in different years — freshmen might take World Geography, while juniors take American History.

Now, in 2022, schools and educators face a new dilemma: state laws prohibiting certain curricular choices. According to Education Week, since January 2021 — a little over a year ago — 37 states have introduced legislation or crafted other measures to limit how teachers can teach and discuss racism and sexism.

The term “critical race theory” has become a lightning rod to justify curriculum and book bans on texts some people deem controversial because they include discussions of racial issues. Even children’s books that celebrate and honor heralded Black figures like Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have come under fire.

Add the existing limitations to the current political showdowns at school board meetings and in state legislatures, over absurd issues such as whether to ban a book about Ruby Bridges, and it’s easy to see why Black History Month is still so important.

I heard it firsthand last week in my library when I talked with several groups of ethnically and racially diverse students about historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse Moorland. They fought for one week of celebration of Black history and culture, and purposely proposed that week be in February because that’s the birthday month for both President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

When I asked why Lincoln’s birthday would be meaningful for Black Americans at that time, several hands, in each group, shot up with similar answers. “He freed the slaves” was the gist.

I then asked why Frederick Douglass was important. I was met with silence.

“Show of hands if you know who Frederick Douglass is.”

In every group, hardly anyone raised their hands.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years and is Nationally Board Certified. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

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