Black History and New Learning

There have been some outstanding events to mark Black History Month 2019, such as the African-American Read-In and Gwendolyn Briley-Strand’s portrayal of Harriet Tubman, each of which drew a capacity crowd to the Arts Center. Some of our schools also mounted innovative in-depth programs that deserve praise. We are leaving February behind, but let’s not end the fascinating study of Black History.

Regrettably, in many schools Black History Month is still celebrated in such a perfunctory way that students and their teachers never really open the door to let it in.

Yes, the door is often opened just a bit, with the chain still attached, to allow a brief encounter with Martin Luther King. And that is fine as far as it goes. In my own teaching about Martin Luther King, I’ve noticed that despite being aware of the national holiday and the word Dream, most Americans don’t know Martin Luther King as an American writer and thinker. It’s a shame. We are fortunate that Dr. King left us a handful of books that are inspiring, informative, and fun to read. These writings are not about him; they weave back and forth between the events he experienced in the Civil Rights Movement and the larger human condition. They offer lessons in how to think about who we are as people and what we can be as a country. He wrote about how to solve really difficult human problems nonviolently. He wrote about goodness as practical, and enemies as redeemable. My college students ask, “Why didn’t anybody really tell me about Martin Luther King in school?”

Dr. King’s work is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Black History. With a little exposure (followed by almost certain capture of the mind and the imagination), a reader comes to stand in awe of James Baldwin’s writing, or Richard Wright’s, or Alice Walker’s, or Toni Morrison’s, or Maya Angelou’s, or that of their forefather Frederick Douglass. A person will discover a great deal of wise observation and reflection about the harshness and beauty of American life in the photography of Gordon Parks, the plays of August Wilson, the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, the astonishing beadwork of Joyce Scott. Significant players from a thousand fields of endeavor are out there waiting to be known better. Black History Month should be an invitation into their world, one that leads to significant new learning.

Sometimes it works. So, like many teachers, I am cautiously glad that we have the half-loaf of Black History Month. The irony is that really paying attention and giving BHM a chance reveals that Black History is authentic history that can inform a person’s understanding of the world they live in. Red-lining it into only one month of the year is frankly weird.

Here’s the kicker. Black U.S. History necessarily encompasses American History in general, because of the “double consciousness” of which W.E.B. DuBois wrote: there is knowledge about the majority culture and knowledge about minority culture, but only members of a minority must, for sheer survival, know both.

Mainstream textbook authors have spoken mainly to the majority. Historical accounts have not, until recently, been written inclusively and in more than a token way about nonwhite experience. Consequently, many in our land still do not believe that knowledge of others is necessary to their own lives and to their understanding of the world. They have been robbed of the wisdom of double consciousness. That is a sorrowful loss, in my opinion.

Let’s look on a brighter side to take us beyond February. Black History is fascinating. If sheer survival or quality of understanding don’t move you to study or teach it, how about the elemental joys of fun, excitement, beauty, page-turning absorption, inspiration, artistic profundity, flow, and discovery? There are strong positive reasons to study African American, and more broadly, Multicultural, history. Like a room that is full of treasures waiting to be discovered, the door to this new learning is only closed until we open it.


Charles E. Collyer

The author is a Senior Trainer of the Ira and Mary Zepp Center for Nonviolence and Peace Education, and Chair of the Education Committee of Carroll County’s NAACP Branch 7014.  He writes from Uniontown, MD.