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Black History Month Bears a Message for Educators

 

February is Black History Month. This is a tradition that goes back to the 1920s when the famous social reformer Frederick Douglass’ 14 February birthday was remembered for a week every year so as to focus on the teaching of black culture and history in schools.

 

Since the 1970s then it has become a month-long commemoration of black history and culture in many countries beyond the United States.

 

What does this tell us about education?

 

It is easy to forget that nothing in a syllabus is taught without some level of power, hegemony, and selective representation at work. Schools are busy places, and it is not always easy to take the time to problematise the cultural bias contained in what is taught, something that happens, in general, to a greater degree at university. The result of not questioning content can be a reproduction of dominant paradigms without the critical introspection that such cultural transmission requires. Teachers, curriculum boards, and school leaders need to stop to ask some provocative questions: Whose history? Who is included in this narrative? Who is not? Why? Who decides?

 

When, in 1926, the historian Carter G. Woodson felt it necessary to focus on the history of black people it was because he recognised, rightly, that their exclusion from history textbooks meant their exclusion from the narrative of mainstream cultural transmission. This was creating a worldview in the minds of young people in which black people were absent or given marginal, inferior roles.

 

An explicit focus on the achievements and legacy of black people allowed for a shift in focus, a widening of discourse, a more inclusive appreciation of the human condition. It also led to more pride in the achievements of black people and a rethinking of the role black people have played in history. This nurtured educational black consciousness movements throughout the planet, a strong example being the work of the late Senegalese author Cheik Anta Diop whose writings reintroduced black Africans into the pantheon of Egyptian pharaohs, this after a whitewashing of Ancient Egyptian history by European versions in the wake of the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt.

 

Black History Month pushes all educators to think about the hidden narratives, the silenced voices, the invisible actors of history and to problematise the oversimplified, largely Eurocentric and Anglo-American tropes that are still so preponderant in most curricula and, therefore, in most childrens’ minds. 

 

One of the modules in our M.Ed. at UoPeople is entitled Education in Context: History, Philosophy, and Sociology. It discusses the political and sociological nature of curriculum structure, reminding us that learning reflects culture and power. May Black History Month remind all educators to apply a critical lens to their teaching. 

 

 

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