Black History is American History

The accomplishments, impact and influence of African Americans are at the foundation of many of our country’s pivotal historical moments. Though Black History Month provides a venue for us to highlight Black history, it’s crucial that we continue to learn about and celebrate it. Afterall, Black history is American history.

Below, read the perspectives of several Grace teachers on why it’s important to learn about and teach Black history year-round, and how they continue to integrate it into their courses:

Andrew Leonard, Performing Arts:
For the Vocal Music program, teaching Black History through music is essential. I make it a point to start off Beginning Vocals in the 9th grade every year explaining that pretty much all music we listen to today can be traced back to the influence of enslaved African-Americans. All American musical artforms- Jazz, Blues, Musical Theatre, Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop, R&B, Country, etc. are direct descendants of Black culture and music. While this may seem like a hefty and overarching statement, it’s the truth. If you look only at the scales and rhythms used you will find this to be true. 

Therefore, it’s imperative that our Vocal Music students are not only aware of this- but they must learn it, honor it, and practice it from the beginning of their vocal studies at Grace. This plays a part in GraceNotes directly. I have made it a priority to make sure that there is a diverse body of repertoire that we learn and perform in GraceNotes. Some choral programs only focus on what some refer to as “the dead white guys”- aka classical music. While these composers are important to learn, if you are to only stop there, then you will miss the mark of being a truly well rounded and successful musician. Singing music from cultures from all over the world is a way in which GraceNotes practices antiracism daily. Also, allowing GraceNotes to dive deep into the world of spirituals, gospel music, and other forms of choral music that are traditional specifically to America, forces the students to gain a level of respect and understanding that would not otherwise be achieved. This is but only one way in which the Vocal Music program teaches and uplifts Black History all days of year, not just in February. 

Enkay Iguh, Literature
A. As a person who deals in stories—telling them, writing them, and teaching them—I am always aware of the power of narrative. It is how we pass on our cultural values, it helps us define ourselves, and ultimately the stories we hear, especially as children, shape our imagination and what that imagination creates. 

B.As a Black woman, I am also aware of the narratives about blackness, and especially Black woman-ness. These narratives are often dehumanizing, and to encounter them as a student was painful and confusing. What’s more, I wasn’t presented with the framework, the language to understand all that was messaged to me. Yet those messages shaped me.  

If A and B are true, then it is incumbent upon me as a teacher to equip my students with the tools to dissect narratives and contextualize them. What’s more, I must combat the harmful narratives and encourage positive identity formation, especially for my Black students. I teach Black history and life affirming Black stories year round in order to give my students what I never received in high school: tools with which to think critically about the stories we tell, especially regarding race. It is a daily practice and it guides my methodology. Black history is American history, and that’s a truth every student deserves to learn.

Mark Weinsier, History:
I teach the students with whom I’m fortunate enough to work at Grace that they each have a valuable voice that deserves to be affirmed and centered. And I stress to them that they can learn to navigate power structures and be active agents of the change they wish to see in the world.  But it was my own unlearning and relearning of Black History that helped crystallize these truths for me.

Several years ago, in a moment of clarity – and to my great mortification and horror — I realized that my discussions of Reconstruction entirely lacked Black voices and agency. I honestly can’t remember what prompted this revelation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” which landed with this white teacher in a predominantly white institution, for one, like a thunderclap and has become the single-most revisited reference point for me in both my teaching and ongoing learning. 

The more I read, the more I learned – and, in retrospect, wanted to apologize to all of the students who went through my classes as I began teaching them at Grace 19 years ago to whom I may have unconsciously done harm. Because I realized that, for longer than I care to remember, I had inadvertently taught Black History as I had myself learned it growing up in my hometown of Plantation, Florida (incorporated in 1953, which only makes its naming differently execrable): a trauma-focused distortion of the human experience in which people were acted upon rather than having the agency to dream and laugh and love and act to shape the world into the one they wished to see for themselves, their families, and their loved ones. But now I know better. I will never go back.

Now, as GCS students hope for the promise of vaccines while navigating these turbulent times on computers and microphones, they can say they have the genius of Onesimus, Dr. Mark Dean, and Dr. James West to thank. Katherine Johnson and Dr. Mae Jemison show them how to reach for – and get to — the stars. The Divine Nine and Victor Hugo Green lead by example in teaching them how to have mutual networks of support and oases of peace and dignity. The True Reformers and Maggie Walker demonstrate how to create structures out of whole cloth when unjustly denied access. Mary McLeod Bethune and the organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott lead by example in how to wield economic power to fight injustice. The Pullman Porters, The Chicago Defender, and the Freedom Riders teach lessons in how to use media to bring about change. While Madam C.J. Walker and Jay-Z show how to start a business with two dollars and a dream and to build generational wealth, Kehinde Wiley and filmmaker Stanley Nelson mentor them in challenging representation. Fred Hampton’s First Rainbow Coalition and the recent #TimesUp Movement demonstrate by example how to build coalitions. And the allyship of Theodore Sedgwick to Elizabeth Freeman in suing for her freedom, of Catholic sisters of the Order of St. Joseph to Black students in desegregating independent schools in Florida, and of Brad Lomax and the Black Panthers to disability rights activists that helped bring about the Americans with Disabilities Act encourage the eighth graders – and us all – to get into what late Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” Because, in bending that arc of the moral universe towards justice, each of us has a role to play.

My unlearning and relearning of Black History prompted me to reexamine my entire curriculum through other lenses. I am now constantly looking out for and incorporating other stories and voices that were hidden to me in my own education – and, consequently, that I have inadvertently hidden from my students, from gender-binary-shattering Public Universal Friend to agricultural pioneer Ah Bing to Muslim founding father Yarrow Mamout to Sikh railroad builders in Oregon.

As James Baldwin once wrote in his “A Talk to Teachers,” “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”  I’m committed to continuing to learn and teach an ever broader range of histories that speaks to the full spectrum of the human experience and to the power of human agency. And I will continue to lift up and center Black voices – as well as the many others that were hidden to me growing up – every single month of the year.

From Chelsea Flores, Early Childhood:
In Early Childhood, one might call our “unofficial” overarching curriculum, “How to be The Best You.” This curriculum consists of daily lessons on how to listen to each other, ask questions when we’re uncertain, and stand up for those who need help. The opportunities for children to unconditionally celebrate both themselves and one another are numerous in Early Childhood. One such opportunity for students is through telling stories from both around the classroom and around the world.

In First Grade, the “Around the World” social studies curriculum serves as a medium to impart upon students how the similarities and differences of people, which are central elements of an enriching community, should be celebrated. First and foremost, we want our youngest learners to see themselves and their peers in a positive and affirming light. We want them to be able to pick up books and regularly see different aspects of themselves in the stories they read. We also want them to engage with experiences and identities that differ from their own, gaining new perspectives both in the classroom and their surrounding environment. We call these mirrors and windows.

One of our biggest goals is to encourage students to challenge stereotypes and misinformation, right from the start. If we are truly to love and understand ourselves and our neighbors, then we must first learn to listen and appreciate one another. This is why listening to and learning from Black voices and experiences is not just important in February, but all year-round. In many ways, de-centering the white narrative and spotlighting Black history is an opportunity to reflect, learn, appreciate, and uplift our communities to include the multiple, often untold stories. After all, Black history is world history.

From Toby Nathan, History
We teach and learn Black histories at Grace for the same reasons that Dr. Carter Woodson built the field of Black studies a century ago: because Black histories are an affirmation of Black life and identity, and the process of illuminating, teaching, and learning Black histories is a necessary and joyful act that is as much about our present as it is about the past.  

In conceiving of “Negro History Week,” Woodson identified a need to focus and fix our attention on the histories of Black people that had been, to employ the framing of Haitian scholar Michel-Rolphe Trouillot, “silenced” by generations of white historians. Indeed, Woodson feared that Black Americans had been rendered a people with “no history…no worthwhile traditions,” and that liberation would be found in unsilencing, illuminating, and amplifying Black histories.  

His aim was never to silo Black history to a week or a month; quite the opposite. Woodson’s work, and the work of generations of scholars since, was to center Black histories. In fact, Professor LaGarrett King points out that Carter Woodson intended “Negro History Week” to celebrate a year of learning Black histories. Woodson and his contemporaries in the ferment of the Harlem Renaissance affirmed that scholarship and study were vital components of what Alain Locke called a “spiritual emancipation” for Black Americans. 

These ideas are at the forefront of my mind because students in my course, “African American History since 1920,” are currently working to understand the contours of the “New Negro Movement,” and many are also enrolled in Kallan Wood’s “The Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy” course in the literature department. Ms. Wood and I continue to work collaboratively on these courses, so that students can engage with Black stories and Black life across disciplines and without the limitations of any one method.  

Black histories are foundational to the 10th grade “History of the Americas” course, which I teach along with my colleagues, Jaliz Albanese and Jason McDonald. History of the Americas is organized around a decolonial framework, one that explores the interconnected histories of North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, and does so by deliberately centering the perspectives of African-descended and Indigenous peoples across the Americas. Our teaching and learning of Black histories is, and must be, diasporic in scope, both hemispheric and trans-Atlantic, and the “Americas” curriculum for History and Literature enables students to see African diasporic continuities fragmented by colonialism, and bring these to the present. In this course, we work to teach Black histories as histories of liberation and self-determination, Black histories that are joyful, powerful, and complex. 

Our work over the years to strengthen our teaching of Black histories at Grace has yielded significant and ongoing growth in our courses and pedagogy, but has been marked  by mistakes and missteps, including my own, that must be acknowledged. As a white teacher of Black histories, I have too often failed to recognize the ways that my identity and positionality – my relationship to these histories – were making it easy for me not to see the ways in which Black students and other students of color were experiencing materials we were reading or activities in the classroom. As a teacher, my work calls me to acknowledge these failures and to deliberately be a better educator and historian, to center and care for them in all aspects of my teaching life.  Departmentally, we continue to review and strengthen the skills we need to effectively teach Black histories and the histories of other historically marginalized people, because we know that our teaching must overturn and dismantle the power dynamics of the past.  

We learn and teach Black histories both because these stories are central to our shared history, and because Black histories are their own vital stories, which themselves demand our attention and scholarship as students and faculty.  

To adapt Arturo Schomburg’s framing of Black history, we must now all remake our past in order to make our future. We must teach Black histories all year, every year, because history is identity. It tells us who we are, and also shapes who we want to be. Bringing about a just future requires us to do justice to our past.  

Selected Texts for African American History Since 1920 (so far):

Selected Texts for History of the Americas 

Kallan K. Wood, Literature:
Black History Month, as Dr. Nathan has shared, was never about confinement. Black History Month and Black history is about amplifying, elevating and expanding, not restricting and contorting into small spaces. The idea of amplifying, expanding and working to take up space is at the heart of each literature course I teach.

This semester in Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy, a literature course for 11th and 12th grade students, I have focused on the idea of expansion and amplification of the individual voice, the individual writer and the individual character. Black Studies (no matter what the academic discipline), Black people and Black experiences are not a monolith, and much of what we do has to be to constantly push against that impulse. 

In the first half of the course we have studied an array of poets from a collection called Caroling Dusk, edited by Countee Cullen in 1927. In the foreword Cullen underscores this tension between the compulsion to see Black writers and Black Americans as one singular experience and the urgency to not erase the individual and their contributions. Cullen writes,  

“I have called this collection an anthology of verse by Negro poets rather than an anthology of Negro verse, since this latter designation would be more confusing than accutate. Negro poetry, it seems to me, in the sense that we speak of Russian, French, or Chinese poetry, must emanate from some country other than this in some language other than our own. Moreover, the attempt to corral the outbursts of the ebony muse into some definite mold to which all poetry by Negroes will conform seems altogether futile and aside from the facts.”

Towards the end of the foreword Cullen notes,

“The poet writes out of his experience, whether it be personal or vicarious, and as these experiences differ among other poets, so do they differ among Negro poets; for the double obligation of being both Negro and American is not so unified as we are often led to believe. A survey of work of Negro poets will show that the individual diversifying ego transcends the synthesizing hue.”

This text is not only a prolific anthology, it is also an exquisite primary source document. Cullen asked each poet to submit a short biography with their poems. Reading these biographies alongside each poet’s work allows us to further emphasize individuality and make thematic connections that consider and contend with racialized experiences and expression, but are not exclusively about racialized experiences and expressions. Some of the themes we have been exploring within the Harlem Renaissance and will continue to explore into the second half of the semester (our “legacy” bit) are dreams, self-actualization, love, power, elitism, womanhood, manhood, affirmation of humanity and Alain Locke’s notion of “spiritual empaciation”. 

Texts for Harlem Renaissance & Its Legacy: