Black History Month Continues Amid Book and Critical Race Theory Bans

  • Nearly 40 states introduced bills or actions that restrict classroom discussions of race since last January.
  • Teachers have left or been fired from their positions over book bans and anti-critical race theory laws.
  • Even amid these limitations, many educators are determined to teach Black History Month.

Just as she had done in years past, Abigail Henry started this school year by introducing her 9th grade class to a sun conure bird.

The South African birds are brightly colored and often looked upon as a symbol of long lives and freedom.

“They embody the idea that in order to move forward, you have to know your past,” said Henry. “By the end of the school year this bird becomes a representation of positive racial history.”

In her 10-year career, Henry, who teaches at a majority Black school in Philadelphia, has seen firsthand how teaching racial history empowers students.

This is in part why Henry is so frustrated with current conversations about culturally competent and appropriate curriculum: they often omit the positive effect such curriculum can have on students — particularly students of color.

“That’s one of my biggest frustrations [with the anti-critical race theory movement] because the conversation tends to focus on the curriculum forcing white students to learn about their privilege, instead of how teaching about race helps students of color learn what amazing contributions they’ve made to the US and how they’ve made the US better,” Henry told Insider. “What’s wrong with discussing that Black people made the US better?”

A picture of a student drawing of a yellow bird.

 

By the end of the school year, the bird “becomes a representation of positive racial history,” according to Henry..

Courtesy of Abigail Henry

With the rise of book bans and passage of laws banning critical race theory in classrooms across the country, teachers have been placed in what some describe as an “impossible” situation. While many educators have been discouraged from and even fired for teaching about race, others are doubling down on their efforts to teach students what they call the “real history” of America, especially during Black History Month, which began Tuesday.

“I’m not teaching that white people are evil. I never have and never will teach my students that lie,” Khalil Suaray, a Maryland-based educator, said. “We have open and honest conversations about racism and how people have harmful mindsets towards other people who don’t look like them.”

“This is not out of hatred or disrespect for people who are not Black,” he added. “The criticism comes from people who completely misinterpret [teaching about race], because the point is not to make others feel bad.”

How did the US go from introducing Black History Month to anti-critical race theory laws?  

Teaching critical race theory and teaching culturally competent curriculum about race are not the same thing, many teachers say.

Such teachers feel this is an important distinction to make as the attack on critical race theory, a legal framework that looks at how racism has shaped public policy, has led to limitations on simply mentioning race in the classroom.

“Teachers aren’t teaching critical race theory, but do teachers teach history? Yes.” Henry said. “If you’re an English teacher teaching To Kill a Mockingbird or Toni Morrsion, then you’re going to have to discuss the cultural context of the books, which includes race.”

Henry herself teaches excerpts from the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which examines the role of slavery in America’s historical narrative. The current anti-critical race theory movement emerged in part as backlash to the influential project and spiked after the Trump Administration introduced the 1776 Commission, an advisory committee to counter The 1619 Project and bolster what former President Donald Trump called “patriotic education.” A report released by the commission days before Trump left office was criticized for failing to include the perspectives of any historians, lack of citations, and “blatant contradictions.”

Yet backlash against The 1619 Project — which has become synonymous with CRT with many prominent political figures on the right — has led to wider efforts to ban teaching about race. As was seen in the November elections, conservatives ran and won on platforms decrying critical race theory.

A picture of a student essay about building trust in the medical industry among Black people.

 

Abigail Henry’s class discusses different topics related to race, including how to build trust in medicine among Black people when major health disparities persist.

Courtesy of Abigail Henry

Most notably, Gov. Glenn Youngkin defeated Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s high-profile gubernatorial race — going so far as vowing to ban critical race theory’s use in classrooms. Last week, the governor launched a tip line, encouraging parents to report their children’s teachers if they bring CRT or other “divisive subjects” into the classroom. 

Youngkin’s announcement of the tipline came days before he made a speech for Black History Month in which he called on Virginians to “celebrate our rich history,” noted Taisha Steele, director of human and civil rights at the Virginia Education Association.

“Youngkin gave a proclamation for Black History Month in which he spoke about how Virginia is home to distinguished Black American leaders and to celebrate the rich and diverse hopes and dreams of all Virginians,” Steele told Insider. “We get a statement like that, but then outside of Black History Month there’s all this rhetoric.”

Steele added that the discrepancy between Youngkin’s Black History Month speech and his efforts to limit teaching about race in classrooms “proves the point that Black History Month and conversations around it should not be limited to a proclamation.”

While among the most visible instances of CRT limitations, Virginia is not the only state where CRT has been used as a wedge issue. According to an Education Week analysis, 37 states have introduced legislation or “taken other actions” that restricts teaching critical race theory and/or limits discussions of sexism and racism in the classroom since January 2021.

Teachers are doubling down on teaching history during Black History Month and beyond 

The widespread laws banning critical race theory are having a tangible effect on classrooms. Not only do they directly affect what students learn, but they are contributing to the mass exodus of teachers, particularly teachers of color. 

Some educators have even reported receiving death threats and fines over their curriculum, causing them to leave the classroom.

“The racial stress on educators is a real thing,” Henry said. “Some schools are barely functioning and a lot of teachers have quit this year. We need a lot more love and support right now, instead of this added stress.”

While the coordinated attacks on teaching critical race theory from school boards and political figures are undoubtedly limiting discussions of race in the classroom, educators who are in a position to do so are determined to give students a comprehensive look at US history and to discuss the historical context behind inequalities that persist today.

These teachers say although their efforts to do so are year-round, they take on a particular salience during Black History Month, which was designated as a national holiday in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. In his speech recognizing Black History Month, Ford spoke of the importance of seizing “the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

“Brown and Black students need education for different reasons,” Tim Hernández, a Colorado-based high school teacher whose classes are mostly Latino students, told Insider. “White students need education to participate in social systems that work for them, but Black and Brown students need education to feel affirmed enough to participate in these social systems and to make decisions complementary to the lives they want to live.”

A picture of a Black History Month classroom display of colored birds.

 

Educators stress that Black History Month shouldn’t only be focused on the trauma of Black Americans, but should celebrate their accomplishments and contributions.

Courtesy of Abigail Henry

In order to provide an education that empowers and enlightens his students, Hernández plans lessons on Afro-Latinidad and prominent Black figures like Malcolm X and Angela Davis. He connects the history with current events by inviting community leaders and activists into the classroom to speak with students.

“I’m a teacher of color teaching three blocks where I grew up in a very gentrified area,” Hernández said. “These racial systems are very real and my job is to teach my students how to navigate them.”

While trauma is part of the story, educators say Black History Month needs to highlight joy and triumphs 

Several educators, including Brian Harris, say that Black History month also provides an opportunity to ensure that the triumphs of communities of color are taught, instead of just exploring their trauma.

“Black history is so much more than enslavement,” Harris, a Virginia-based teacher and author of the children’s book I Am My History, said. “It’s more than offering a list of facts and dates. Black history is also about celebrating trailblazers, your family, and the people around you in your community and amplifying Black joy.”

Throughout the month, Henry’s school will make morning announcements sharing Black History facts and stories, and every “Melanin Monday,” students and staff are encouraged to wear dashikis, African skirts, or other cultural fashion.

By the last day of February, students in Henry’s class will have answered the affirmation, “I am Black and Beautiful because…” and decorated their own sun conure bird as a reminder to forge ahead while remembering the past.

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