We Want Our Children Educated: Promoting Social Justice through African American History Celebrations

Article excerpt

I believed in the higher education of a Talented Tenth who through their knowledge of modern culture could guide the American Negro into a higher civilization.... We want our children educated. The school system in the country districts of the South is a disgrace and in few towns and cities are the Negro schools what they ought to be. We want the national government to step in and wipe out illiteracy in the South. Either the United States will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States.... Education is the development of power and ideal. We want our children trained as intelligent human beings should be and we will fight for all time against any proposal to educate black boys and girls simply as servants and underlings, or simply for the use of other people. They have a tight to know, to think, to aspire. (1)

W.E.B. Du Bois

These powerful words by W. E. B. Du Bois still resonate in the desire for and construction of effective education for African American children. Though he initially responded favorably to Booker T. Washington's stance regarding the role of the African American in his own destiny in America, his favorable words turned to open agitation and an aggressive push for authentic leadership. (2) Du Bois' words became a call for a social justice agenda that guided the Niagara Movement. Reflections on the continuing effects of this movement are haunting as one examines the challenges inherent in 21st century teacher preparation to serve all children and youth, and especially those who are African American.

Presently, African American children collectively experience the poorest school outcomes when compared to other children and youth in the United States. The achievement gap experienced by African American children and youth is pervasive and perplexing, especially for those who do not honor and understand the strength, integrity and culture of the African American community. (3) Those who understand the promise and the hope in truly educating African American children, understand the Niagara Movement's compelling edict, "we want our children educated!" Still, 100 years later, the continued challenge centers on how to collectively achieve this goal.

Living in and through the vision of Du Bois and others can be an empowering force that guides teacher educators as they prepare teachers who are culturally responsive. As an example, in 1926, Carter G. Woodson operationalized his vision to teach individuals in the United States, and throughout the world, that the contributions to society made by individuals of African descent were important and worth sharing. Greatly influenced by his father, who could neither read nor write, Woodson's vision has bestowed upon us his legacy through the annual February celebration of African American History. While he hoped that the original week's celebration would evolve into a normal mode of willingness for all to embrace the significant contributions of African Americans, 79 years later we continue to struggle for the systemic inclusion of those contributions in American educational textbooks, curriculum and academic conversations.

The purpose of this article is threefold: (1) to share two scholars' efforts to highlight Du Bois' and Woodson's vision for the celebration of African American History Month; (2) to emphasize the importance of teacher educators as models and purveyors of essential modes of thought and action needed in support of culturally responsive teaching methods, especially those methods used to teach African American youth, and (3) to encourage teacher educators, preservice teachers, and teachers to actively promote African American history by offering a model for presenting lessons and programming that highlight a rationale for the celebration of African American history that transcends a derisory month's celebration. (4)

Programs Celebrating African American History

To celebrate African American history, six different programs inspired by the contributions of African Americans have been offered to students across the country and facilitated by the authors. …