Black History Month is upon us, and while it’s a time to learn about the experiences and contributions of people of African descent in the US, it’s just as important to be mindful about how we teach our children this history. It’s our job as parents to nurture and defend our children’s natural instinct to love, and that includes being deliberate in how we introduce and sustain conversations about social justice toward any group. But how do we make sure we’re doing just that? Conveying Black history in ways that are both fun and age-appropriate can help kids appreciate how diversity makes our society both more rich and resilient. Here are six ways to celebrate Black History Month with purpose.
1. Make sure the information that you share about social injustice is developmentally appropriate
For children under 9 years old in particular, we want limit exposure to content that is excessively violent or that can create a social hierarchy in their minds. As described in Race, Class, and Parenting: 5 Strategies for Discussing Social Injustice with Your Children, age is not a reason or excuse to avoid conversations on injustice; but age and psycho-emotional development are crucial considerations when deciding what to discuss and how to share.
Use common sense to discern what kind of language or details that you should use to discuss historic injustice—and especially violent acts of injustice and hate crimes. We can and should communicate that people were and are sometimes treated in unfair and inhumane ways without traumatizing our young children with graphic details.
2. Realize that it is more important to condemn the oppression than to describe it
With children that are old enough, we need to make sure that there is a correlation between how much detail we share about racist oppression and how much we explore the psychology of the oppressor. If you do not feel that your child is not old enough or sophisticated enough to reckon with the depraved motivations of slaveholders, then they may not be ready to be exposed to the explicit details of the practices on plantations.
Many Black history stories are curiously missing an antagonist. We risk inadvertently laying blame with the victim when we do not identify and condemn the abuser. Avoid content that describes institutionalized racism in the passive voice. For example: Harriet Tubman was not a slave. The Brodess family enslaved Harriet Tubman.
Reframing these conversations in this way creates accountability for these crimes against humanity, which is the most critical step towards justice.
3. Make sure to give broader context for systemic bias against Black people
There are many historical examples of systemic bias and oppression throughout the world. Make sure your children are aware that suffering and enslavement are not unique to Black people. If we fail to contextualize the enslavement and segregation of black people, we unintentional dehumanize this population.
Many children are taught about the oppression of Black people long before they are taught about the oppression experienced by any other community. The goal is not to incite pity for Black people; it is to illuminate the universal problems associated with systemic injustice. Ultimately, we want our children to understand Black history in order to recognize and combat injustice against any individual or group.
4. Do not ignore the diversity and complexity of the Black experience
Truthfully, there is no singular “Black experience.” It is inherently problematic to make skin color the singular unifying factor in the historical experiences of groups of people. The African diaspora spans the globe. People with dark skin exist everywhere, and the historical context of their arrival at their respective locations is completely different for different groups of people and individuals.
Do not collapse Black history education into the U.S. slavery to civil rights narrative, as is often practiced.
The Black experience is diverse, complex, evolving, and on-going. Black history started long before the slave trade. It encompasses people of all religions, socio-economic levels, and political persuasions. If you fail to teach your children to grapple with this complexity, they may default to stereotyping. During Black History Month, be sure to include conversations about a variety of black people living in America, including LGBTQ individuals, differently-abled Black Americans, recent immigrants, and women.
5. Make Black history relatable by focusing on shared interests and experiences
Focus on teaching about the contributions and experiences of Black Americans that naturally align with your child’s interests. For example, if your child is very interested in space or astrophysics, you could look for biographies on Mae Jemison or Neil deGrasse Tyson.
If you have a little foodie, try sampling or cooking foods from the African diaspora like soul food or Caribbean food. If you have an actor, musician, poet or inventor, expose them to Sydney Poitier, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, or Garrett Morgan.
Black history month is a unique opportunity to cultivate authentic respect for and identification with Black American culture. Take advantage of the surge of content that is available this month to help your children see that there is more that unites us than divides us.
6. Make sure to continue Black history and social justice education year-round
Dedicating the shortest calendar month of the year to acknowledging the experiences and contributions of Black people is inherently problematic. In an equitable circumstance, academic curriculums would reflect the experiences and influences of all people seamlessly. If our textbooks were accurate and inclusive, we would learn about the contributions of African American engineers during our engineering unit—not just during Black History Month.
In this way, Black History Month is a cultural institution that may contradict or subvert its own intended goal. It absolves our schools, teachers, and society from the responsibility to actually integrate people of color during the rest of the year, but we can remedy this within our own homes.
Make sure to integrate conversations and history lessons about Black people all year so that your children will know that diversity appreciation and the mission of social justice are a lifestyle, not a novelty.
– Mimi Nartey
featured image: Adobe Stock