Academic journal article Negro Educational Review

Once a Year to Be Black: Fighting against Typical Black History Month Pedagogies

Academic journal article Negro Educational Review

Once a Year to Be Black: Fighting against Typical Black History Month Pedagogies

Article excerpt


The philosophical underpinnings that prompted Negro History Week (now Black History Month) served as an attempt at reconfiguring the long and troubling discourse concerning the representation of Black people in K-12 curriculum (Bair, 2013; Dagbovie, 2007; Sesay, 1996; Woodson, 1926). As early as the 19th century, Black history in K-12 schools presented Black people as non-existent or egregious caricatures in the master script (Swartz, 2007) to infer a state of natural inferiority to Whites. School curriculum, represented through textbooks, contributed to self-hatred for Black children and helped propagate racial bigotry and the doctrine of White supremacy (Elson,1964; Dubois, 1935; Woodson, 1933). The father of Black history, Carter G. Woodson (1994/1933), proclaimed that the curriculum taught Black children that their "Black skin was a curse" (p. 3) and that they should hold an inferior place to other races in society. Additionally, he surmised that schoolchildren and adults internalized the curriculum that contributed to both symbolic and physical violence against Black American children, "because there would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom" (Woodson, 1933, p. 3).

Statements from historian Arnold Toynbee stating that Black people "made no productive contribution to civilization" (cited in Winston, 1975, p. 462) or philosopher Georg Hegel's (2004) comments that Africans had an "unhistorical spirit" (p. 171) were indicative of the attitudes and dispositions about Black peoples' heritage displayed in early textbooks (Epstein & King, 2012). Several late 19th century and early 20th century school textbooks (Elson, 1964; Foster, 1999; Dubois, 1935; King, Davis, & Brown, 2012; Reddick, 1934; Spearman, 2013) unfortunately showcased Black Americans as childlike, foolish, and uncomplicated which exemplified how "the African Negro was clearly regarded as the most degraded of the races" (Elson, 1964 p. 87). It was not uncommon to see texts that described the Black race as "destitute of intelligence" (Smith, 1851 p. 157) or "a brutish people having little more of humanity but the form" (Elements, 1789, p. 30). Sherman Williams' (1898) Choice Literature: Book One for Grammar Grades even used religion to conclude the ominous social position of Black people:

He [God] first made the Black man realized he had done badly, and then created successively lighter races, improving as He went along" (p.l 17). To the White man He gave a box of books and paper, to the Black a box of tools so that could work for the White man ... which he has continued to do (p. 117).

The primary and secondary school curriculum, therefore, were antecedents for racial discrimination. The school curriculum was part of a racial apparatus to maintain the schema of White superiority and Black subordination. These historical narratives began to promote taken-for-granted and normalized notions of race where both Whites and Black people accepted their inherent status in society.

In an effort to fix these issues with the representation of Black history, Woodson believed that an effective weeklong school intervention program concerning Negro history would help to: (a) invalidate the existing axiom of historical thought found in the school curriculum about Black people, (b) provide an uplifting curriculum to Black school children, (c) alleviate racism by providing students, teachers, and citizens a counter curriculum that spoke against the racist discourse of society (King, Crowley, & Brown, 2010; Sesay, 1996; Woodson, 1926). Although Negro History Week was to be celebrated "once a year" in February, Woodson hoped that Black history would be accepted within the traditional history curriculum as race became more accepted both domestically and internationally (Dagbovie, 2004, 2007).

Today, Black History Month's influence (or lack thereof) has morphed into national prominence and has become a contentious topic (Tilghman, 2012). …

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