Of the nearly 240 students who currently attend Sprunica Elementary School, in Indiana’s rural Brown County, 97 percent are white. Recently, school counselor Benjamin White sent a letter to the parents of those students.
“February is a time for caring and growing for our students,” White’s letter begins. “In honor of Black History Month and Valentine’s Day, I will be coming around and teaching lessons related to equity, caring, and understanding differences.” White didn’t make clear precisely what those lessons would be, but assured parents that having “a greater understanding of diversity” would benefit both the students and the school as a whole. White then gave them the choice of opting their kids out of it.
That created a big headache for the Brown County school superintendent, Emily Tracy, who later apologized for White’s “unauthorized” letter and wrote in a statement that “our District does not permit students to opt out of history lessons — including ones based on historical injustices.”
None of us should be able to select, a la carte, which parts of history students learn so as to guard our political or cultural sensibilities. However, the Sprunica Elementary story comes amid an ongoing public and political crusade by conservative politicians, voters, and media figures against the teaching of Black history, during this month and the 11 others.
The battle over what conservatives mislabel as “critical race theory” has been raging across the country since the summer of 2020, coming in the wake of the global uprising following George Floyd’s murder. The politically conservative rebuke to an all-too-brief uptick in interest about Black lives and antiracism has been a campaign aimed at deleting Blackness from the national story.
This imagined peril has a purpose. Rather than using the power of their offices to actually govern and fight systemic racism, Republicans have been trying to gaslight people into believing these problems don’t exist. The result has been a clumsy, though dangerous, attempt to absolve America of its history of racism and discrimination by preventing people from actually learning about them. This has had significant consequences, including the reported intimidation of students, educators, and elected officials.
The misguided crusade has only proved how much America needs the very thing that Black History Month founder Carter G. Woodson wanted: to fully integrate, year-round, the teaching of Black history into the curriculums of our schools.
Critical race theory is not the scourge of public education or threat to the self-esteem of white schoolchildren that Republicans and their media appendages depict. It is a scholarly framework for understanding the systematic nature of American racism, and few students outside of graduate school engage with it. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, in the seminal 2001 volume Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, define it as “a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power.”
Bowing to the demands of Republicans hunting critical race theory and those parents frightened by anything that doesn’t promote race-blindness and American exceptionalism, school districts and libraries are removing texts like the 1619 Project and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist — as well as several others simply written by Black authors. Entire topics are disappearing from our economy of ideas. Efforts are underway to make Black history, LGBTQ+ life, and the Holocaust off-limits subjects. Some states are trying, and succeeding, in their quest to make such nonsense the law of the land.
Florida Republicans have passed Senate Bill 148, otherwise known as the “Stop WOKE Act” (the acronym is short for “wrongs to our kids and employees,” though the “our” is not made specific). It would mandate a certain unconsciousness in the state’s public schools were it to become law, banning the teaching of critical race theory and lessons about gender identity.
Florida is hardly alone: Education Week reported this month that, to date, 41 of 50 states have taken steps, including introducing legislation, to restrict public schools from teaching critical race theory. Meanwhile, Chalkbeat reports efforts are underway in 17 of 50 states to “expand education on racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history, or related topics.” Still, exploiting white fear in this way has been so effective that Democrats, who regularly count education as a political strength, are on the defensive against the literal promotion of ignorance. What else should we call it when people are trying to keep others from learning things?
As the fight to criminalize the sharing of knowledge continues, it’s worth remembering that Black History Month was explicitly about two things from the very beginning: education about Black history, and honoring two key figures in that history.
Frederick Douglass didn’t know precisely on which day in 1818 he was born, but he believed it to be in February. Eventually, he celebrated his birthday on February 14, coincidentally, two days after Abraham Lincoln’s. Combining existing Black celebrations of the two men’s birthdays, the late scholar and historian Carter G. Woodson originated Negro History Week in February 1926. It only became Black History Month in 1970, 20 years after his death.
For this reason and others, historians and other scholars have referred to Woodson as the “father of Black history.” It is an odd title, perhaps, but consider the climate in which he founded Negro History Week. When recalling the America of 1926, it’s evident that Woodson was pivotal in rescuing that history from the pyre of America’s racist revisionism.
The Great Migration was well underway, in part because racist massacres in places like Elaine, Arkansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, were still fresh in Black people’s minds. They knew America had become all too used to the spectacle of their deaths; postcards and other horrifying souvenirs from the lynchings of African Americans had become commonplace. Much like today, the country’s greatest terroristic menace came from within, perpetrated by white people with extremist beliefs.
However, Jim Crow was not merely a systematic method of segregation, legalized discrimination, and violent terrorism. Its principal business, using both murder and monuments, was erasure. Its proponents achieved this by killing Black people, yes, but also by lauding the supposed heroism of Confederates who enslaved their ancestors. By 1926, construction of statues and monuments promoting the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy had become epidemic.
Woodson — the second Black Harvard PhD ever and the only child of formerly enslaved Americans to earn one — noted that campaign of erasure upon Negro History Week’s inception, and expressed the hope that the observance would give rise to the further inclusion of Black people within the nation’s narrative:
If a race has no history, it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated… In such a millennium the achievements of the Negro properly set forth will crown him as a factor in early human progress and a maker of civilization…
Must we let this generation continue ignorant of these eloquent facts?
Over the generations since, however, that is precisely what has happened. Public and private education about Black history and achievements has been insufficient, at best, even before the manufactured panic Republicans are stoking. Woodson’s observance, explicitly intended to integrate the teaching of Black history inside school classrooms, has become more of a marketing ploy for consumer brands and a virtue-signaling opportunity for political leaders.
Black History Month was not meant simply to make us feel less racist or more culturally aware; it was designed to show us what America really is and always has been, so that we might make it better. To a power structure that reinforces and metastasizes racial inequity, one Black History Month is not a threat.
How about 12, though? That is what Woodson sought, after all.
The idea of a “Negro History Year” sounds so much like what Republicans seem to be anxious about that I’m a bit surprised they haven’t used it in a fear-mongering speech or advertisement.
Yet Woodson spoke consistently of his hope for exactly that. He imagined a day in which “the Negro is studied so thoroughly that special exercises are no longer exceptional,” he said in 1940. “There is a growing demand for workbooks and syllabi with which to facilitate the study of the Negro and thus make Negro History Week [into] Negro History Year.”
He also wrote, in a separate article, that his Negro History Week was not merely about increasing instruction, but fostering ambition. “[It] should be a demonstration of what has been done in the study of the Negro during the year and at the same time as a demonstration of greater things to be accomplished,” adding that “a subject which receives attention one week out of the thirty-six will not mean much to anyone.”
Many, including activist and columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, have seconded Woodson in the following years. Amid this crusade to erase and erode Black history, ambition, and accomplishments, let me echo them once more.
Twenty-eight days of concentrated learning, even if done properly and not merely through Instagram memes, would hardly be commensurate with the manifold Black contributions to the American project. Nothing less than a full integration of those lessons into school curricula was ever going to be sufficient.
I recall, as one of very few Black students at a private school, being handed a thick, black textbook in seventh-grade history class. It had a bald eagle on the cover, and about one page detailing the entirety of the civil rights movement. I recall Martin Luther King Jr. getting one of the few, if only, mentions. You’d have thought he was the only civil rights leader who existed.
Black History Year isn’t such a radical idea when you consider that neither I nor my parents were offered the opportunity for me to opt out of learning the history of white people in America. It is still palpable, that perception of my difference or uniqueness I felt during my earliest days at school. I had to learn early, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, how to move through the world as a Black boy in a white world. Those skills have served me well later in life, admittedly. But they were lessons I had to learn.
That fact of life isn’t changing anytime soon. Black folks will need to stay fluent in whiteness, so to speak. Mostly in order to survive, at the very least. But why are white people exempt from returning the favor? How is our nation’s survival not dependent upon them becoming fluent in the experiences of Black people, as well as Indigenous populations, Asian Americans, the disabled and chronically ill, and other marginalized communities?
One could argue that white people haven’t had to consider their whiteness unless there is a perceived hazard to the inherent, unearned societal advantages that they too often enjoy. The increased conspicuousness of their racial category in a slowly diversifying America may be a cause for the conservative panic.
As some further their campaign of disinformation, there is a clear motivation to solidify a younger voting base before they mature, calcifying their ignorance about racial matters so that they do not think critically about the America that is evolving around them. If there is an ongoing identity crisis with white Americans, which seems to be the case, it’s arguable that a more inclusive education about race and inequity would give them the vocabulary to have conversations rather than avoiding them.
How do we best combat the current efforts to prohibit and mischaracterize the teaching of true American history? A good place to start is Woodson’s own vision: integrated curriculums concerning race, racism, and this nation’s history.
Would implementing and expanding Woodson’s vision even work? The very least we can do is find out. The development of empathy through knowledge, curiosity, and scholarship is an underused weapon against prejudice and discrimination. Woodson not only understood this, he taught us as much. I had to read about him in books that my teachers failed to assign me. I discovered Woodson in libraries, and through texts gifted or handed down to me from relatives. And yes, every February, I got reminders of Woodson’s contributions.
It isn’t terribly radical to consider that all American schoolchildren should learn the very history Woodson sought to save. And not just in February.