Don't relegate black history to one short month

February 17, 2002|By Charles M. Christian

IF CARTER G. Woodson could see what has become of Black History Month, I suspect he'd be outraged.

Never heard the name? Well that's part of the problem.

Carter G. Woodson got the observance started (as Negro History Week) in 1926, angered that "books his students read included no information on the role of black people in the nation's history."

More than 50 years after his death, our textbooks still largely ignore the role of African-Americans. For those of us who have rigorously studied the African-American experience and understood the richness of this part of American history, February has become a month of disappointments.

Too often, Black History Month activities focus on just a handful of role models such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It's terribly demeaning to any intelligent person to believe this is the extent of the African-American experience. That's like saying, "I know George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln - I know American history." Yet if children or adults memorize a few facts about the Mount Rushmore of African-American history, too many people feel the job is done. That's what Black History Month has become.

It's not enough.

Where in February can you find abolitionist Prince Hall; Bunker Hill war hero Salem Poor; white Quaker abolitionist Thomas Paine; influential black Marylander Henry Highland Garnet; Free African Society founder Richard Allen; white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison or Maryland abolitionist Frances E.W. Harper?

And what about contemporaries such as Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to become a federal judge; Mary Frances Berry, head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; or August Wilson, a playwright who won two Pulitzer Prizes? If Black History Month is to count for something, these names should resonate with many more people.

In the long run, what we need is a more integrative approach. The black saga is not a back road; it's a main street. If you don't know African-American history, you simply don't know American history.

As an example of one integrative teaching effort, I've worked for 10 years with school districts throughout Maryland developing the Black Saga Competition. Elementary and middle school students rigorously study African-American history all year, mainly on their own time, preparing for local and statewide competitions. The questions are rigorous. It's not a trivia contest. To do well, they must grasp the major themes and trends shaping the black saga and the American experience.

Perhaps most importantly, children from all backgrounds choose to participate, and it changes them. For some it's the first time they've had a chance to shine. Others are moved on a basic level by the sheer drama of the events in people's lives. Their reactions transcend race.

Here's my experience: The elementary and middle school students who compete know more about the African-American experience than 85 percent of the public. That's a source of pride for participating students, parents and schools. But it's also an indictment of an educational system that too often trivializes or ignores the black experience and, by extension, American history.

We need to teach a more inclusive American history. The black saga is a vital part of that story - too big and too important to fit in a short, four-week time capsule.

Charles M. Christian, a professor of social geography at the University of Maryland, College Park, is the author of Black Saga: The African American Experience (Houghton Mifflin, 1995).

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