Black History Month is important to a world hurting from racial injustices, pandemic

February 1, 2021
Contact: Jared Wadley jwadley@umich.edu

FACULTY Q&A

February is Black History Month when the contributions, customs and achievements of African Americans are celebrated. But as the country deals with racial injustice and civil unrest, these 28 days take on greater importance, says Earl Lewis, University of Michigan professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies and director of the U-M Center for Social Solutions.

Why is Black History Month still relevant today?

Once a year, the nation pauses to reflect on the contributions African Americans have made to the world, especially the United States. That intentional focus augments what’s taught in school and belies the claim that only some have steered this country and made lasting contributions. Such a focus remains all the more important in a world hurting from health crises, economic losses and racial injustices.

In previous years, communities held in-person celebrations, lectures and events in February—all of which inspired and uplifted participants. Can the same excitement and interest happen during a pandemic when most events will occur virtually?

As someone who has given multiple talks over Zoom these last nine months, I know that digital platforms can serve as important devices for conveying important messages. Feedback has told me that the audience in attendance, often larger than what I encountered in in-person events, benefited from the message conveyed and appreciated the ability to listen and learn. For the speaker, there is the loss of immediate feedback, but if that’s the predominant negative, I think we can all persevere.

Are schools doing a better job at teaching Black history that goes beyond Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and slavery? And, is there any interest in doing this nationwide?

I believe that evidence suggests that primary and secondary schools still struggle to teach Black history that spans more than three or four key moments or key figures. A lot of this rests with the curriculum design and textbooks selected. A year ago, the New York Times profiled the outsized role of Texas and California in determining the history textbooks selected and the content they conveyed. Much of the nation is dependent on what those two states chose, and that’s a problem. As districts attempt to expand content, they may in time also reform the curriculum. Colleges and universities have made some headway by an insistence on various educational requirements for graduation.

Will we reach a point where Black (or Hispanic, or any other ethnic group) history month is no longer needed?

Even as we attempt to correct for past neglect, we are learning new things. Take slavery, for example. For years, we have taught slavery as a story about the forced, intergenerational exploitation of Black bodies and labor. While that is true, in his recent book, “The Other Slavery,” Andres Resendez notes that 2.5-5 million Native peoples were also enslaved. Focused attention on one group invites new understandings of others as well as how, in this example, the comparison alters the basic narrative.

I think we will find a continued reason to set aside a specific time to probe various histories more thoroughly. In the end, the interactions among the various peoples give us a better purchase on a deeper, broader understanding of the American past. Such an understanding redounds to the benefit of all who value a healthy democratic society.

 

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