Black History Month (BHM), in October in the UK and February in the US, celebrates the role that Black people have played in world history. The month was introduced in the 1970s in America, and adopted by the UK in 1987.
How did it come about?
Carter G Woodson, a son of former slaves from Virginia, USA, is considered to be the founder of Black History Month.
A historian, Woodson found that African stories and achievements were rarely mentioned in historical books. To bring attention to this, he co-founded a group called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, who decided to celebrate one week of Black history annually. The second week of February was chosen because it coincided with the birth of activist Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom advocated for the abolition of the slave trade. In the 1970s, the event was expanded to a month-long celebration.
The UK introduced Black History Month in October 1987, when American Professor of Africana Studies and activist Maulana Karenga was invited to an event at London’s County Hall to mark African and Caribbean contributions to history.
A few other countries have followed suit, either in October (like Ireland) or in February (like Canada).
How can I apply the aims of BHM to my teaching and learning?
Many countries have started to recognise the need to incorporate Black history and culture in schools, though teachers are usually left to decide how to teach the topic in their classes. In the UK for example, the DfE (Department for Education) has stated that schools have the freedom to incorporate Black history into their curriculum from primary school age.
A really important thing to remember is that fully integrating Black stories means thinking about how Black people are represented in every part of your school and learning, and throughout the entire year - not just during Black History Month.
As a teacher
Embed Black history and culture into your History curriculum…
This is the central aim of Black History Month - for everyone to understand how Black history fits into world history and their own nation’s story. We have a few ideas for you here, and some really great resources at the bottom of the guide.
- Teach your local Black history. In Europe for example, learning about the American civil rights movement is important, but only focusing on the US can make Black history feel like something that happened far away. Instead, make sure you include local Black history in your class. If you’re teaching in the UK for example, you can talk about Rosa Parks in Alabama, but also about Paul Stephenson, who successfully led a boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company in 1963, protesting against its refusal to employ Black or Asian drivers or conductors.
- Don’t only teach European and Western history, or focus just on slavery and colonisation. While teaching both of these topics is very important, Black history is about much more than them. For example, you should include the history of Africa before colonisation and since, which is varied and rich. You could teach the history of Timbuktu, which was a centre for scholars and intellectuals in the 16th century; or the history of Liberia, which was founded by free Black people from the US before the Scramble for Africa.
- Include the perspectives of Black and Indigenous people when you are teaching events from their history. This is a simple example, but you could discuss the problem with the use of the word ‘discover’ when talking about European colonisers arriving on already populated lands.
- Don’t teach simplistically. History is a complex topic with no easy answers, and students will always appreciate being trusted to understand all the nuances.
- Make an effort to include the achievements of Black people throughout history (from the evidence of early calendars in Ancient Egypt, to Matthew Henson, the Arctic explorer, or the Tuskegee airmen, the Black pilot crew which fought in WWII), point out when the actors in an event were more diverse than what is generally recognised or represented (for example, many cowboys were Black), and include positive stories of Black people (in the UK for example, you could teach the story of Notting Hill Carnival).
… and into every other subject!
In Humanities and Arts subjects, you can make an effort to include the contributions of Black people. For example:
- In English Literature, you could teach a play by Shakespeare alongside one by Black playwright August Wilson.
- In Art, you could feature the work of contemporary Black artists like Kara Walker, who exhibited at Tate Modern in 2019, or discuss the influence of African art on fauvist painters like Matisse.
- In Dance and Music, you could explore the impact of pivotal Black cultural figures like choreographer Alvin Ailey, or cultural movements like jazz music.
- In Geography, you could highlight Indigenous and Black communities’ work on conservation, like the Bambuti-Babuluko people who protect forests in the Republic of Congo.
- In French, you could discuss the influence of African immigrants on French culture, and include literature from francophone African writers like Fatou Diome.
- In Media, you could look at the impact of contemporary Black activists like footballer Marcus Rashford.
In Science and Technology subjects, you can do things like:
- Featuring the achievements of Black scientists throughout history, like the stories of the Black female NASA scientists during the Space Race, which were told in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
- Using stories or artefacts from Black history as a starting point to teach a topic. For instance, white artist MC Escher’s tile designs are often used to illustrate tessellation in Geometry - but Escher was inspired by a visit to the Islamic palace complex of the Alhambra. Examples of tessellation are also found on traditional African wax print fabric, called ankara.
- Using examples from Black history to demonstrate scientific concepts. For example, you could look at the unequal outputs of algorithms used in law enforcement (like the COMPAS recidivism algorithm) to discuss algorithm bias in ICT.
Representation on the walls
A simple but immediately effective thing you can do is work on the materials that your students see when they look around them in your classroom and your school’s corridors. Walk around your school. Are Black people being depicted on your walls? Is the work of Black artists being showcased, or the poems of Black writers? Talk to colleagues about refreshing displays which are lacking in these areas.
As a student
- Make a change in your school. If you feel that the stories of Black people - both throughout history, and in the present day - are not being taught or recognised enough in your school, discuss it with your teachers. You could put a group of fellow students together to support you, write a letter or even start a petition.
- Get reading, watching and listening. Are you seeing Black people represented in the films you watch and the books you read? And take a look at whose voices you are hearing from - are Black creators at the core of the media you consume? For example, as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, you could read the autobiography of Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), who was Harper Lee’s exact contemporary.
On our Read, Watch, Listen tool, you can search by any category and then use the filter for ‘Creator ethnicity: POC’ to find texts, music, podcasts and videos from diverse voices.
- Find inspirational Black figures to follow. Whether you’re into sports, music, writing, climate activism, or science, have a search for some Black leaders in the field, and follow what they are doing on social media or out in the world.
This will likely take a little bit of research on your part because often, Black leaders and activists are less promoted than their white counterparts. For example, while activist Greta Thunberg is everywhere (as she should be!), you’ll need to dig deeper to find her non-white fellow young climate activists (try Leah Thomas, aka Green Girl Leah, for starters).
- Learn about anti-racism. Anti-racism means not only not being racist, but actively fighting against racism. Making an effort to take in the stories and viewpoints of non-white people in your every day life is one of the ways in which you can work on being anti-racist. To learn about other things you can do, and more about what anti-racism is, you can take a look at the Anti-racism section of the KHL.
Good stuff from elsewhere
The Black Curriculum
UK-based teaching resources and workshops to increase black representation on the curriculum. Resources include free videos, as well as lessons you can purchase on subjects like intersectional feminism, and their 12-hour modules include politics and art history.
Puffin: Teaching black history
These resources are aimed at KS2 (ages 7-11 in the UK), but they make an excellent starting point for teaching black history through non-white perspectives to all ages.
A guide to significant historic events and Black achievements across the world.