Since 1976, February has been designated as Black History Month, an annual celebration and recognition of the role of black Americans in the history of the United States. In school, we learn about American history and the important African American story that follows from slavery to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, black identity is constantly evolving, and is far from being “history.” Schools teach African-American history, highlighting the racism and oppression of the past to nurture a generation of tolerance and acceptance, which is becoming increasingly important in light of the recent political shift and presidential office that seems to focus on fear and exclusion that has divided the country. This responsibility often falls upon the core humanities classes at BHS.
As February approaches, more teachers have started to incorporate topics of black history and culture into their classrooms. For example, the CP senior class are currently reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. Additionally, the sophomore classes have begun to read “A Raisin in the Sun” while exploring themes of assimilation, social status, and African-American identity. Likewise, the AP English Language classes are reading Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” a haunting novel that examines the effects of the greatest atrocity against African Americans in our history: slavery. Also, the class is reading and analyzing works from influential and powerful black writers such as Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Sojourner Truth, and Ta-nehisi Coates. Since these classes have suddenly shifted their classroom focus on these themes of racism and inequality against African-Americans, I wondered if these changes were deliberately synced for during black history month. English department co-chair and AP Language teacher Shane Karshan says there is no correlation.
“I think English is amazing because it is an empathy generator. As a teacher, I want my students to read and learn about people who have different experiences than they have. There’s no agenda other than teaching that everybody has their own stories, struggles, and everyone deserves respect,” Karshan said.
Whether enrolled in AP or CP history, all juniors study U.S. history from Jamestown to the late 20th century and often learn of the crucial contributions and roles of African-Americans in the American story. Junior history teacher Annie Miller acknowledges the importance of learning the tragic past of our black history.
“We cannot begin to to understand who we are as a country and who we are individually as Americans until we understand our whole past,” Miller said.
The history classes strive to deliver the entire unfiltered truth to teach the students about black history.
In high school, however, we are introduced to black history with the capture and oppression of African slaves through the Middle Passage. African origin and culture are excluded from our high school textbooks because we learn the culture only after contact with our American history. Miller, who taught seventh-grade world history for one semester, said that in middle school, “we did explore African cultures plenty. But when we get to U.S. history, we don’t go very far back into, sadly, any cultures before contact. That includes Europeans, Native Americans, Latin Americans, and African Americans. That’s why the emphasis in high school is when people start to come to the United States.”
Miller, like Karshan, notes that the history department’s education on black history is not limited to black history month.
“We don’t do World War II without discussing black soldiers,” Miller said. “We don’t teach the 1920s without talking about the Harlem Renaissance. Every unit I teach has to incorporate all the different groups that affect our history.”
According to the California Department of Education, only 0.8 percent of the BHS population is African-American. In a predominantly white school with a black demographic of less than 1 percent, it may be difficult for black students to foster their cultural identity. However, as a member of this small category, junior Savaun Brown admits that “I think our education on black history is comprehensive for a school where there aren’t lots of black people.”
Brown appreciates the inclusive educational environment at BHS that doesn’t just seclude one month for black history, but rather incorporates it into the entire curriculum.
“Black culture is a huge part of American history, so I’m glad there have been many instances in history class where we’ve gone over important events where African Americans have impacted the country and world as a whole,” Brown said.
At first glance, English classes’ concentrated study of black authors and works seem to coincide with Black History Month. However, while Black History Month is a celebration of black identity, the humanities teachers make sure that the themes of equality and inclusion they teach in their classrooms are not exclusive to the month of February, but rather lessons that they demonstrate throughout the year.