Black History in Classrooms


Agnes Kurtzhals

Black History Month started February 1, and lessons about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriett Tubman are taught, but never the numerous other Black activists, leaders, scientists and inventors.

Zaynab Kouatli, Opinion Editor

As Black History commenced on February 1, I have reflected on my time as a student from elementary to college. Despite Black history being American history, it is usually only taught during the month of February. The lessons about Black history were not even the tip of the iceberg. We were told year after year about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriett Tubman but never were exposed to the numerous other Black activists, leaders, scientists and inventors.   

When I took my first education class at Wayne State, I was shocked to learn that many of my peers were not even familiar with Brown v. Board of Education. How could so many people, especially education majors, not know about such an important turning point in the history of race relations? Why has the education system whitewashed and erased back history from its curriculum? Most importantly, how can we move forward and fix the flaws in our education system?  

When I become an educator, I want to create a classroom that is safe, inclusive and anti-racist. Black history should not just be confined to the month of February but rather be taught in every classroom and infused into the curriculum year-round. I know some of you might be thinking, “You cannot incorporate Black history into every subject.” However, this is a false and harmful assumption.  

I am studying art education and have many plans to incorporate Black history in my lessons. It becomes easier for students to explore the narrative, meaning and technique behind artworks if they spend time looking at art. I will make sure when I show my students example pieces, that I include Black artists and artists from several different backgrounds. The artists being discussed should be diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Teaching students’ diversity allows them to understand various cultural groups and aids in building tolerance.  

However, when teaching Black history, it is important to not overlook the atrocities committed against the Black community and people of color. The lesson I planned for a subject like this is for my students to investigate how art can be used to spread both negative and positive messages. For centuries Black people appeared in art as slaves or exotic novelties. America has a long history of creating anti-Black imagery from savage caricature to racist cartoons. I will ask my students several questions relating to the pieces. What was your reaction to seeing this image? What is wrong about how people in these works are portrayed? 

After a discussion about the impact of racist imagery we will look at an artist whose work examines aspects of African American culture in the United States. Kerry James Marshall is an artist whose goal is to make the presence of black people and black culture in the art world “indispensable” and “undeniable.” Learning about artists like Marshall allows students to truly understand the hardships of African Americans and how hateful imagery can be reclaimed and turned into something powerful. 

As educators we can’t sugar coat our history and pretend as if these horrors committed never happened. I know conversations like these are hard, but we need children to understand and think about how these issues play a big role in shaping who we are and how we think. By exposing children to these subjects, we can teach them about the world, acceptance and empathy. I encourage educators and future educators to not overlook Black history and find ways to incorporate it into their classroom.