Honoring Black History: Being Present and Celebrating Black Futures

Holly Spinelli, February 2023

February is a key month of the year where educators honor and celebrate Black history. This is an important moment in classrooms across the country, especially with so much tension and resistance to specific historical truths that are not as easily accepted and understood in all communities.

Studying Black history is a critical part of American education, and as we embark on this important work, it is crucial for us to also remember a few of the following items to continue to center Black voices, stories, and histories in our educational spaces throughout and beyond the month of February:

February is a month to celebrate and honor Black history, but it’s not the only month to do so.

There are numerous reasons why some educators pause “regular curriculum” or choose only February to focus their lessons and materials on Black history, however, what about the rest of the school year? Hopefully, all voices, including Black voices, are present in our classrooms all year. There are certainly places where some folks are forced to follow strict curriculum guidelines, but what are ways to ensure that all voices are present therein? A few questions for educators to consider when selecting specific texts, authors, and themes to study in their classrooms are: Whose voices are present? Whose are missing? Which authors are centered? Which could/should be included in this study? How do these texts represent the students I’m currently teaching? It’s important for students to see themselves and others when reading both fiction and nonfiction. Diversifying classroom texts offers rich, important perspectives for students to know and understand. Two great resources for including more voices in your selected readings are: DisruptTexts.org and #TheBookChat (on Twitter). Black authors, stories, and histories belong in classrooms all year.

Black history contains more than tragedy; remember to include Black joy.

Black history and stories are complex and layered. They include far more than tragic experiences. Of course, it is critical to educate our students about the devastating atrocities that the Black community has faced and to have our students understand the impacts that those horrors have on those communities today. However, it’s also important for students to read stories that include Black joy, Black success, and Black futures! We must ask ourselves: What is the impact of only teaching a community’s tragedies? How can I include stories of hope, joy, and celebration? There are countless innovative, creative, and inspirational people and stories in Black communities across our nation. Students need to and deserve to see that joy, presence, and bright futures are also part of and stem from Black history. In a 2021 Chalkbeat article, Dr. Sonja Cherry Paul shares excellent resources, authors, titles, and eye-opening points to help us center Black joy and Black futures in our classrooms.

Teach and include texts by living Black authors

Yes, there are powerful and engaging stories that brilliant, talented Black authors of the past have gifted us. I can’t imagine my own classroom without essays and stories written by James Baldwin, bell hooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, and others. These authors are, without question, some of the greatest authors of all-time, but what message am I sending to my students if I only teach Black authors who are no longer alive? It’s important for students to engage with written works created by Black authors who are living and experiencing the world at the same time as them. Students in my classroom have enjoyed Hanif Abdurraqib’s poetry, Roxane Gay’s essays, Trevor Noah’s memoir, and Colson Whitehead’s and Elizabeth Acevedo’s fiction, among others. Teach Living Poets offers a wide variety of contemporary poets to include in your curriculum. Penguin created a list of books that feature contemporary Black authors. If you’re looking for a robust list for middle grades, Afoma Umesi’s website, Reading Middle Grade is a wonderful space to explore a variety of YA texts. Kokila is a division of Penguin Books that features children’s literature written by authors from historically marginalized groups.

NCTE African American Read-In Resources

Each year, folks in schools, community centers, places of worship, and other gathering spaces come together to read, discuss, and learn more about books written by Black authors. NCTE has extensive resources to help educators better understand the event’s history, and to find or create an African American Read-In in your school or local community.

Black history month’s significance cannot be overstated. It’s an important time to continue to foster appreciation and understanding in our educational spaces. We hope these resources will help you, your students, and your colleagues find much to celebrate during Black history month.

Holly Spinelli is an advocate for equality through anti-racist, anti-bias, and anti-oppressive facilitation within and beyond the classroom. She is a 2011 Alice Trillin Teaching Award For Social Justice Work in New York Classrooms recipient. Holly continues to cultivate community-inspired work as an English teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School in Central Valley, New York, and as an adjunct instructor in the English Department at SUNY Orange County Community College. She is an Academy for Teachers fellow, an NCTE Open Educational Resources Fellow, and she served two terms as a member of the National Council of Teachers of English Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English.

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