What If You’re A White Teacher Teaching Black History? [Some Examples]

Jose 2 Comments

In my last post, I put down some thoughts on Black History Month, something I’ve written about at least once for the last four years. Every so often, I get a question that I ought to put in an FAQ section. For instance:

“What if you’re a white teacher teaching about Black history?”

I often reply, “Go right ahead, as long as you do it right.”

Of course, you want to know what I mean by “right.” Besides the aforementioned article, I’d like to point you in the direction of some of the comments made in that article, too. For instance, here’s my respected colleague Mike Kaechele:

As a social studies teacher I really don’t like all of the special months and days. I try to teach the various viewpoints of history holistically. I will not be singling out blacks in February, just like we didn’t talk about terrorism on 9/11. We did spend three weeks on 9/11 and terrorism when it fit where we were as a class. We have talked about African Americans in the context of all of the wars and foreign policy that we have discussed. I feel comfortable not focusing on Black history in February because we do integrate it all year in context and we will spends weeks on the Civil Rights Movement starting in March.

I do appreciate the need to still have these months because too many people and teachers still neglect them. But for me in my classroom, I choose to ignore the “calendar schedule” knowing that I will give the topics due diligence when it fits our scope and sequence.

We have something here. Here’s another one from my colleague Laura Sexton:

Having our school on a college campus means that I get to walk my Spanish 2 class over for the college’s Celebrando America Latina series featuring afrolatinos in Peru, Mexico, and Cuba this month, but we’re not going to even start the unit about afrolatino experiences in different countries (which you helped me out with a few years ago wiki style, and for which I owe you part of my National Board certification) until the end of the month, so it’ll go well into March too. So over 1/3 of the course is approaching Woodson’s goal, right?

Right. For now, I don’t want anyone thinking Black / Latino / LGBT / Asian / Women’s / Native American / Any Non-Dominant Group History Month should go away, but eventually, whether we have mainstream views on America or not, we do have to do more than acknowledge these groups’ roles in American history, and until we do that, we’ll continue to need them.

It starts with those of us in the classroom, but we can’t do it alone.

Jose, who needs non-educators to jump into the fray too …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 2

  1. Sherman Dorn

    Better a white teacher trying to do Black history than a white teacher ignoring it. Easiest way: let the historical sources speak for themselves. In February, one close friend of mine made sure her students had access to some of the more interesting primary sources from the civil rights movements, one year the Letter from Birmingham Jail, and another year King’s Nobel Prize speech. Her students at the time were preteens who had moderate cognitive disabilities and more challenging behavior, so it was essentially one long primary source for the whole month. She kept asking questions: What do you think this means? Why did he say this? Why not [an alternative]?

    Some years ago I remember reading debates over the authenticity of who wrote African American history. I forget who said something like the following, probably Gene Genovese in the early part of his career: there’s a huge problem if the only people who write the history of African Americans are white. There’s also a problem if only African Americans are interested in African American history and see its importance to them. The same is true for K-12 teachers.

  2. David B. Cohen

    I agree that a mindset and a context is preferable to a pro-forma attempt to “do” Black History Month. In your last post you mentioned the Black National Anthem. It comes up each year in my tenth grade classes when we read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” There’s a scene where the singing of the anthem provides a significant boost to the morale of the students and guests at a middle school graduation. It’s a great opportunity to look at the complete lyrics and ask why African-Americans might feel “The” national anthem doesn’t speak to them. We compare and contrast the lyrics of the two anthems, observe the shifts in tone and focus in the three verses, and then any of us who know the melody sing a verse (sometimes that’s me singing a solo! I also play a verse each from the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and Ray Charles). Of course, much of the book digs into issues of discrimination, perseverance, and feelings of inclusion or exclusion. We’ll also circle back to discussions of race in America when we read “To Kill a Mockingbird” next month. Among other topics that come up, I teach students about the Scottsboro Boys trials, and the history of lynchings. I also try to contextualize the book in its time period, asking some key questions: why was the book so popular when it came out? What did it offer that made it so appealing, and did that appeal possibly vary according to the race of the reader? So, this month, I’m not really in search of opportunities to address black history.

    One other angle to consider is the make-up of the classroom and the school. I’m a white teacher in predominantly white and Asian school. Hard to imagine that my approach wouldn’t change in some ways if I were in a different school (same guiding principles, but maybe some different connecting opportunities, different materials, different lesson strategies, course calendar, etc.).

Leave a Reply