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When Black History Month is Illegal: How to Navigate New Limitations to Teaching Race & Diversity

Editor's Note: Today, February 1st, marks the start of Black History Month. However, this year, 35 states have taken legislative action to restrict teaching critical race theory (CRT), or a lens that focuses on the legacy of systemic racism. These restrictions limit what teachers can discuss to students about the United States' history and its consequences or topics such as racism and sexism. Many teachers continue their Black History Month lessons as planned, but many others are carefully exploring the best ways to approach these lessons amidst new "anti-CRT" rules and restrictions. One thing remains constant: history cannot be hidden or denied forever. Our guest-author, Anna Almore, shares advice on ways to continue teaching the past to students who can shape the future.

A third of the nation’s children live and learn in states where the stories of influential authors, key historic moments, and critical perspectives have been or are on the road to being deemed illegal. These histories and analytical tools name a truth too many hope to cover: racism is alive and well in America. With mounting fear of retaliation from school districts rejecting this truth of our nation, educators grow more weary in an already trying time. If creating pandemic pedagogy wasn’t already taxing, educators now are tasked with navigating the landmines of censorship as they walk towards truth, masked and socially distanced, with the youth they are responsible for.

It feels like we are teaching in unprecedented times, and let me be clear, we are, but there is a communal memory and collective fortitude we can draw from in these harrowing times. Jarvis Given’s, author of Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, tells the story of teachers like Tessie McGee, a 28-year-old Louisiana Black teacher in 1933 who dodged the pernicious violence of Jim Crow educational laws through small, courageous acts of bravery. In her tiny classroom, she worked through the mandated curriculum yet slipped in moments, undetected by administration, to read experts to her students from Carter G. Woodson’s latest publications. In the small moments, the quiet utterances, and the quick diversions from curriculum, these educators across the South built worlds where Black children were seen in their humanity despite curriculums that would rob them of their histories and stories.

You see, to some extent, we’ve been here before. There is a knowing and a wisdom we can pull from to re-enact the world-making practices of these brilliant Black educators to support all students. The acts of creative maladjustment that fueled the creativity of these educators will be essential to protecting the well-being of not only children of color harmed by this state-sanctioned censorship but also white students who are robbed of their own histories.

Maybe this is why 2022’s Black History Month feels more important than ever.

Carter G. Woodson is one of many Black educators who remained antagonistic to the structures that would alienate Black children from their becoming. In 1926, he created Negro History Week as a way for Black educators to unapologetically remedy the erasure and oversimplification of Black history. By 1939, Negro History Week was celebrated internationally. In school systems that were never designed for Black and Indigenous youth to thrive, educators have always had to create alternative, subversive, and extracurricular sites to connect all children to truth. We are here, again.

Jarvis Given’s describes the pedagogy of these pre-Brown v. Board educator’s as fugitive, recalling the historic fugitive slaves whose thirst for freedom led them to run. Like those ancestors who fled by night towards their freedom dreams, who stopped at houses with candles burning in the window, who risked their lives as an act of refusal, Black educators who loved their students operated with the same orientations.

What is happening here is not working. We need to run. We need stowed-away packs of food to nourish us on our flight. We need homes turned into refuges with candles blazing in the window. We need cover for when there are hounds on our trail. And we need hugs, laughter, resources, and rest on our journey towards the great unknown.

So, with this Black History Month, what can we do?

Ways to Educate Students on Diversity and Black History Month

(in the Midst of Legislative Restriction and the Anti-CRT Movement)

  1. Tell our stories. Anti-Blackness taints all our stories, and our stories exceed the trap of a single narrative of oppression and denigration. Black genius surrounds us.

  2. We can still build our student’s understanding of systems and cultivate within them a systems-thinking orientation to understanding problems. At the core of systems-level thinking is an analytical frame that parses out the unique ways personal, interpersonal, institutional, and structural forces are at play in any given scenario. We can still support our students’ thinking and posing questions at multiple levels. We can still support their critical thinking.

  3. Build community and check in on your colleagues of color. Our very bodies illicit suspicions and concerns. Our very presence in schools make anti-CRT bill supporters uncomfortable. Undoubtedly the heat of this vengeance will disproportionately burn educators of color. How are we deepening our professional relationships to meet the challenge of this moment?

  4. Language is constantly evolving. We can loosen our grip around words that we know will evolve in a few years and avoid the buzzwords that set off the red lights for alarmists. Let the children do the talking. Discussion, discourse, and writing are essential fixtures of a rigorous classroom at all ages, in all contents. Educators can avoid the hot-button terms named in CRT-bills such as unconscious bias, structural racism, and white privilege by creating more space for students to discuss and write. We can use question-posing to share the critical thinking skills with our students.

  5. Blur the boundaries between IRL (in real life) and URL. For the most part, our students have access to the entire world. Encourage their independent research. Teach them how to navigate false information online. Cultivate their curiosity to extend the conversations you start in the classroom. Let’s not underestimate how influential teachers are in nourishing the innate resourcefulness and appetite for knowledge our youth have.

  6. Rest. Your presence (in body and mind) is the most powerful resource you share with students daily. Beyond your thoughtful preparation, well-curated lessons, and gorgeously designed handouts, your ability to truly hear your students’ meaning-making is what makes educators excellent. With the fury of the pandemic, learning loss mythology, and snowballing fatigue, your rest has never mattered more. Get it. Unapologetically. Take the days off when you need them.

Ultimately, we all have to contend with this hard question: what risk am I willing to take?

Did this article help you think about teaching differently? Check out the latest course offering from Design for Change - the J.E.D.I. (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) Educator Training - that offers a suite of resources and activities to honor the work of Black leaders.

Givens, J. (2021). Fugitive pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the art of black teaching. Harvard University Press.


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