OPINION: American school curriculums need to include Black history beyond Black History Month

Altering textbooks and training teachers to facilitate effective discussions around important Black historical figures and their connections to American history will allow Black history to be taught beyond just one month in February. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Black History Month, occurring every February in the U.S., highlights iconic Black figures who have influenced America and the world, ranging from Harriet Tubman, to Frederick Douglass, to Martin Luther King Jr. and Marsha P. Johnson. While many honor their legacy during the month of February, these figures deserve to be recognized year round, but schools and textbooks tend to leave their stories out of the standard K-12 social studies curriculum. 

Influential Black figures deserve the praise they gain in the month of February, but teachers tend to leave these figures out of their curriculum until Black History Month arrives. A 2015 study by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Oberg Research found that American history classes only spend an average of 8-9% of time learning Black history. State education departments must begin altering textbooks and curriculum to include Black history beyond the month of February. 

Instead of teaching about these individuals as part of prominent historical events, many of their stories are minimized and taught only during Black History Month. Some history textbooks, like those published under McGraw-Hill that were criticized in Texas last year, have been known to avoid in-depth discussions and descriptions of slavery, despite historical events relating to the topic like the transatlantic slave trade and the Civil War being key to shaping the development of America. 

“There are huge gaps with teachers, in textbooks and in the state standards, which tend to avoid slavery,” said Director of Southern Poverty Law’s Teaching Tolerance program Maureen Costello in 2018. “[Slavery’s] profits fueled the Industrial Revolution and built our country in the 18th and 19th centuries.”

A Florida law was put in place in 2017 that allows citizens to challenge material in textbooks due to an overwhelming amount of backlash from conservative activist group Florida Citizens Alliance, according to NPR. 

Although the law was pushed by the group because it believed Florida textbooks included political indoctrination, like climate change education and what the group deemed to be a bias toward socialism, the law can now be used to alter textbooks if they are being exclusive or misleading. Black individuals who have contributed significantly to global history and social development deserve to be recognized on the same level as white historical figures. 

A contributing factor to the lack of Black history in social science classes is due to textbooks, which commonly leave out or minimize minority historical events. 

Florida’s K-12 textbooks are chosen by the heads of each district and some selected educators, according to Florida Department of Education spokesperson Cheryl Etters. They are only reviewed and revised every five years, but in a quickly progressing world, textbooks need to become more inclusive, which would require more frequent revisions. 

These books should also begin to be altered to include more minority figures and history to normalize Black education outside of Black History Month. In 2019, the Texas State Board of Education revised the state’s history textbooks and social studies curriculum at the request of the public due to the curriculum downplaying the civil rights movement and minimizing slavery, according to the state’s Board of Education.

Educators have brought attention to the lack of inclusivity and Black history in textbooks. In a 2018 survey by racial justice group Southern Poverty Law Center, 58%, or 1,036 of the 1,786 teachers surveyed, felt that the textbooks they used in classrooms did a poor job of covering slavery. 

Florida teachers can also help to alter the state curriculum and improve how they discuss Black history. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People helped pass a bill in 2017 that requires educators to attend cultural training, but short lessons on stereotypes and cultural appropriation do not go deep enough into how and when to teach Black history.

School districts and administrators should take advantage of resources like Teaching Tolerance, which shows teachers how to educate students on Black and minority history by teaching anti-bias language and ways to challenge prejudices, to make discussions surrounding these topics more productive for students.  

Although not adherent to the K-12 curriculum, some universities are working to change their own inadequate curriculums that don’t include enough information on Black figures and cultural events, which can hopefully serve as an inspiration to administrators at public schools.   

Initiatives like requiring college students to take an anti-racism course as part of their general education course load have become popular among university administrations. USF announced in November 2020 it will add this requirement, offering courses like Racism in American Society and Exploring Cross-Cultural Diversity, but these constructive courses will not alter the entire education system’s lack of Black history in its curriculum. 

Educators and members of state education departments need to begin integrating Black history into the standard K-12 history curriculum. The curriculum must be altered to normalize teaching Black history in months other than February. Black people and other minorities have been important contributors to American and global progress, yet their stories are separated from those they worked alongside.