The Importance of Teaching Black History Year-round

Wolf Trap Master Teaching Artist Kofi Dennis interacts with students and teachers in a Chattanooga-area early childhood classroom.
Feb 25, 2021

As the month of February has ended, I have been reflecting about the legacy of educator and historian Carter G. Woodson, who first established Negro History Week in 1926, as a means to recognize the history and achievements of African American people. Negro History Week would lead to the establishment of February as Black History Month, but Woodson and his fellow African American educators always intended for the study of the history and contributions of people of African heritage to be infused in the education of America’s children year-round (see Jarvis R. Givens’ highly informative article detailing “The Important Political History of Black History Month”). They understood that the intentional miseducation about Black people in the American education system only served to perpetuate racism, injustice and inequality for people of African descent.

Fast forward to today and we are still in a place where the true histories and the contributions of Black, indigenous and other non-white populations, are minimally included, and most often omitted in our modern public school curriculum and instruction, despite the fact that peoples of color have lived and contributed to our nation for centuries.  

As our society─including arts and education institutions and organizations─is being challenged to address diversity, equity, access, and inclusion, we must realize that substantive, meaningful impact must be a constant practice embedded in the fabric of how we operate and engage in our places of work and our educational environments, and in how we live and thrive as a human race. This, too, is how we need to consider and apply Black History well beyond the month of February.

Some state and local school systems already are working to change how African American History is incorporated in education (for examples, see the work of Virginia’s African American History Commission and New York City Department of Education’s Black History resources). We must continue to impress upon those who create the curriculums and standards the importance of accurate representation in our children’s education, and it is essential that resources and lessons are from the perspectives of the people who are being represented. I am reminded of an African proverb that prominent Nigerian scholar and novelist Chinua Achebe referenced in the Paris Review, “… until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Educators are very creative and vigilant at acquiring resources to ensure children receive a well-rounded education. Applying this same vigilance would mean including in instruction factual content, experiences, histories, and contributions that are representative of the children we teach and all peoples in our communities and society, and integrating this content across all subject areas. Families and community cultural bearers and practitioners are a great resource for educators to access relevant content to share with students.

We must continue to access resources through our school districts, families, community representatives, cultural arts organizations, libraries, and other institutions of learning. Our ability to engage children with a fully representative education must become the new norm in our instructional practice. Educators and families must be empowered to provide our nation’s children with knowledge, academics, and life skills that truly represent the multiple, diverse perspectives of all people in our society, and must be supported to apply these resources in instruction from January to December, 365 days a year.  

Your Partner in Learning Through the Arts,

Akua Kouyate-Tate
Vice President, Education
Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts