February is a very important month for me. It is important not because it is the month of my birthday or because it is the month of Groundhog Day or Valentine’s Day or Presidents Day. It is an important month because it is Black History Month.
During this month, we attempt to focus on the cultural and economic contributions made by African Americans in many aspects of our lives.
So, why should we focus on Black history? The answer is simple: American history is incomplete without the inclusion of Black history. When we exclude a piece from the puzzle, the story of American history remains incomplete.
For example, the Boston Tea Party is very much an American story in which the colonists protested against tax legislation passed by British Parliament. Two years later, the colonists went to war against Britain. Protests in the 1770s, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 are all American stories of people fighting for their rights. Such narratives must be kept alive in the hearts and minds of our future generations.
As an educator, it is my responsibility to make my students aware of these historical facts and the whole fabric of American history. These students will then be responsible to pass on that history to the next generation. We certainly want our future generations to be well versed on the entirety of American history, not just on selected fragments.
The United States was established on two principles: freedom and individualism. Freedom is probably the most cherished principle of the two, because it gives us the autonomy to choose what we want or don’t want. As communities, we have freedom to decide what our children should learn or not learn in school. This freedom allowed many parents to opt their children out of sex education classes, for instance.
Recently, Maria Montessori Academy, a charter school in North Ogden, Utah, allowed parents to opt their children out of its Black History Month curriculum. In my view, this was wrong.
North Ogden’s population is 94% white. Apparently, some parents thought this is why their children didn’t need to learn Black history. This reminded me of my own experience, some years ago, in a small town in western Pennsylvania. That town, like North Ogden, had a majority white population. One day I was visiting a local elementary school. As I approached a particular classroom, a boy looked at me and immediately covered his face with his hands and quite loudly said, “Oh no, it’s a Black!” This was followed by laughter from other children. All I could think at that very moment was how unprepared these children were to face the diverse world outside their community. This incident convinced me that these children probably were not exposed to diversity and most likely were not taught Black history.
The teaching of Black history, in fact, seems imperative in white communities, as awareness leads to acceptance.
Sonia Nieto, a renowned multiculturalist and professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, once said multicultural education is necessary for all students regardless of their backgrounds. However, she underscored that white students need multicultural education more than any other groups because they are the ones who most likely will grow up with misconceptions about people of color.
In an Annenberg Foundation article, Nieto said she’s always surprised “when people say that multicultural education is about political correctness because a politically correct stance is only one way of looking at things. I think that multicultural education gives us a variety of perspectives and many ways of looking at things. That being the case means it’s not so neat. ... It can be full of conflict. That’s what democracy is about. And if we truly believe in democracy then we need to welcome those disparate voices — those voices of conflict and tension and difference — into the conversation. Otherwise we’re just paying lip service to democracy.”
Nieto said she believes “multicultural education needs to be understood as basic education. It’s not a frill, it’s not a fad, it’s not an add-on, and it’s not something that is separate from the curriculum and the climate in the school. I see it as basic as reading, writing, arithmetic, and computer literacy. It’s basic for living in today’s world. And if we don’t teach all our children with a multicultural perspective, we’re not preparing them to live in the world.”
I completely understand the urgency of Nieto’s argument from my own teaching experience. Recently, I asked a freshman class consisting of mostly white students if they knew who Ruby Bridges was. Only a handful of students out of 60 students recognized her name. Most students were unable to remember if their teachers ever discussed the life of Ruby Bridges in their K-12 curriculum. Unfortunately, Ruby Bridges — who, at age 6, became one of the first Black children to integrate New Orleans’ all-white public school system in 1960 — probably did not make into their school curriculum even though her life is an American story, not just a Black history story.
Despite their sufferings and sacrifices, Black Americans have made significant contributions toward the establishment and advancement of this country. When we talk about school curricula, especially history curricula, it must include the whole of U.S. history. There should be no opting out of Black history.
Kazi Hossain is an associate professor in Millersville University’s Department of Early, Middle and Exceptional Education, and a faculty member in African American Studies.