Educators across the state say they support Black History Month lessons and that they provide valuable information about Black accomplishments, despite some political efforts to end the tradition.
The observance, dating back to the mid-1970s, provides opportunities for educators to teach lessons focused on Black stories that may not fit into the standard social studies curriculum.
Dave Johnson, the president of the Michigan Council for the Social Studies, praised the decision of many teachers to focus on Black history each February.
“February is when we can take time to slow down and really highlight some of those important heroes and figures — but the story itself should be taught all year,” Johnson, of Cadillac, said.
Johnson, a former teacher who now specializes as a social studies consultant for the Northern Michigan Learning Consortium, said he thinks Michigan’s year-round social studies curriculum does a good job of covering marginalized groups.
“Our content standards for the state have a lot of callouts to Black history. That’s intentional, it’s part of the overall history story. It’s hard to find a place where the story isn’t mentioned in our standards,” he said.
The Holland-based Council for the Social Studies was included in the Department of Education’s five-year review of the statewide curriculum, which ended in 2018. Johnson said the organization worked to be as inclusive as possible when helping revise the standards.
“We’ve really tried to be as inclusive as one can be when writing content standards, recognizing that when you have standards that make up what’s essentially a year-long history course that you see for an hour a day, you’ve got to get as many of those callouts in there,” he said.
“But it’s impossible to do any of it justice.”
Elizabeth Lyons, a member of the East Lansing Public School Board, said she supports teachers making sure to cover cultures outside of the standard curriculum.
“I’m a big proponent that we need to make sure that we are teaching about different cultures, diversity, equity and inclusion, throughout the curriculum and not just during certain months,” she said.
Lyons, whose children attend East Lansing Public Schools, discussed her own elementary-age children’s classroom experiences.
“My daughter says, ‘We learned about Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Beyoncé.’ So I think that the teachers every day since the beginning of February have been incorporating some kind of Black history within the curriculum,” she said.
Maleika Brown, the director of equity and inclusion for Grand Rapids Public Schools, praised the Black History Month observance, while also advocating more widespread inclusion of Black history outside of this month.
“The learning should never stop and shouldn’t be encapsulated to just February,” she said.
She said it’s essential for students from marginalized communities to see representation in the classroom.
“About 32% of our students are African American, so thinking about them being able to see themselves represented in the world around them — and at this age, it’s represented in what they learn and talk about in the classroom, as well as the media,” she said.
“Representation is important so students understand that they too had a part in building these United States and this America,” Brown added. “And it’s not just a time when, unfortunately, we get the same four or five figures over and over again in the curriculum.”
The observance of Black History Month does draw political attacks.
For example, Austin Chenge, who is Black and is currently the only official Republican candidate for governor, said on Twitter that he would cancel Black History Month if elected.
“It’s offensive, unfair, maybe illegal,” he wrote. “I’ll declare American History Month.”
Chenge’s comments reflect those similar to supporters of the “All Lives Matter” movement, who argue that Black topics shouldn’t be elevated or treated differently, despite most Americans agreeing that racism is still a problem throughout the country.
In reality, Chenge would be unable to “cancel” Black History Month in the state.
The Legislature recognizes it annually through nonbinding resolutions, as do individual state and local agencies, actions that a governor wouldn’t be able to overturn.
If elected, Chenge could issue a proclamation of his proposed ‘American History Month’, as opposed to the proclamations in support of Black History Month that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has issued annually. However, that wouldn’t directly affect the Legislature’s actions – they would still operate technically independently, although could still be influenced through political means.
Teaching Black history also faces largely partisan criticism in other parts of the country.
For example in Arkansas, a recent push to ban the 1619 Project in classrooms, a collection from the New York Times that frames American history as inextricably linked with slavery, was proposed to the Legislature — and rejected by a Republican-led committee.
And a Utah charter school allowed parents to opt-out of the specialized Black History Month curriculum, a decision the school reversed after significant national criticism.
Johnson, of the Council for the Social Studies, said, “When you look at the word ‘history,’ it’s exactly that – it’s a story. And when you tell any story, it’s dangerous and disingenuous to leave out portions of it just because it makes someone uncomfortable.”
Lyons, the East Lansing board member, said, “We need true history and real history to be taught.”
Provided to City Pulse by Capital News Service.