And how you can diversify your learning and teaching
This guide is taken from the Know How Library, a tool on the Unifrog platform. Not sure whether to take the ACT or the SAT? Or how to give the perfect Oxbridge practice interview? The Know How Library is an easily searchable library of 100s of expert guides for both students and teachers, covering every aspect of the progression process. It is included as standard for Unifrog partner schools.
Black History Month (BHM) celebrates the role that Black people have played in world history. In the UK, it's in October; in the US, it's in February. This guide outlines the historical significance of BHM and how you can make sure you’re including the aims of BHM in the classroom.
How did it come about?
Black History Month (BHM) was started in the United States by American author Carter G. Woodson. As a historian and the son of former slaves from Virginia, Woodson found that African stories and achievements were rarely mentioned in history books. So he co-founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915.
In February 1926, the group launched the historic week dedicated to celebrating Black history. They chose the second week of February because it coincided with the birth of activist Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, both of whom advocated for the abolition of the slave trade. In the 1970s, the event was expanded to a month-long celebration.
In the UK, BHM was first celebrated in 1987. Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a Ghanaian analyst and journalist, organised the recognition of October as BHM in the UK. He coordinated the first official BHM event in the UK. American professor of Africana studies and activist Dr Maulana Karenga was invited as the first speaker at the event which was held at London’s County Hall.
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 in the classroom?
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 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 throughout the entire year – not just during BHM.
Things that students can do
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 contemporary.
You can use the Read, Watch, Listen tool to search by any category and 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 also actively fighting against racism. Making an effort to take in the stories and viewpoints of non-white people in your everyday 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.
Things that teachers can do
Embed Black history and culture into your history curriculum…
Teaching your local Black history: In Europe, 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, like the Bristol bus boycott in 1961, or John Blanke in Tudor England.
Teaching more than just Western histories of slavery and colonisation: While teaching both of these topics is very important, Black history is about much more than them. You should include precolonial history, like the history of Timbuktu as a centre of intellectual scholarship in the 16th century.
Always including the voices of Black people: It can be easy to narrate what happened and when, but what’s more valuable is providing students with perspectives from lived experiences. So when teaching these histories, be sure to include the voices of those impacted. Black people can and do narrate their own stories, so we should listen. For instance, you can unpack the use of the word ‘discover’ when talking about European colonialism.
Employing a holistic approach: History is complex and there are no easy answers, and students will always appreciate being taught how to see the bigger picture so that they can understand all the nuances. So remember to use the works of Black historians, like W.E.B Du Bois, and other key figures when teaching these histories in class.
Celebrating Black excellence: Make an effort to include the achievements of Black people throughout history. Remember to refer to a range of change-makers so students know can celebrate Black excellence from ancient times to the modern day. Check our guide on Celebrating Black excellence for more information.
… and into every other subject!
Potential topics to discuss
Study literature by Black authors like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, or Bernardine Evaristo.
Art and design
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 Henri Matisse.
Explore the impact of pivotal Black cultural figures like choreographer Alvin Ailey, or cultural movements like jazz music. You can also include plays written by Black playwrights like August Wilson.
Highlight Indigenous and Black communities’ work on conservation, like the Bambuti-Babuluko people who protect forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Discuss the influence of African immigrants on French culture, and include literature from francophone African writers like Fatou Diome.
Look at the impact of contemporary Black activists like footballer Marcus Rashford. Or the success of Jordan Peele's movies and their impact on the film industry.
While M.CM Escher’s art is often used to teach tesselation, consider also looking at the Islamic patterns in the Alhambra Palace that inspired him. These patterns can also be found on traditional African wax print fabric called ankara.
Discuss the stories of the Black female NASA scientists who were involved in the space race. You can recommend watching ‘Hidden Figures’ to learn more.
Discuss criminal justice in relation to algorithm bias by exploring the unequal outputs of algorithms used in law enforcement, like the COMPAS recidivism algorithm.
Representation on the walls
A simple but immediately effective thing you can do is work on the visual materials in the classroom and school 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.
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.