We are still teaching Black History Month incorrectly


It’s Black History Month, and though it’s a short month, it’s an opportunity for everyone to learn about different Black cultures, perspectives, and stories. Black History Month is also a time to consider what impact we are having in our communities, social circles, workplaces, and classrooms. This article unpacks an example of a culturally insensitive Black History Month lesson and its ramifications.

When a Black History Month lesson goes wrong 

Suppose for a moment you are an African American student in a 7th grade classroom in Massachusetts. It is February—Black History Month—and your history teacher announces that they will give a special lesson revolving around black history. Your anticipation builds as you recognize a rare opportunity to learn about people who look or looked like you. Topics could range from the Harlem Renaissance to Shirley Chisholm’s presidential run, from Stevie Wonder’s album Songs in the Key of Love to Black suffrage. Instead, your teacher places a handout about slavery on your desk. You briefly consider that learning about slavery from an African or African-American’s perspective could actually be new and intriguing. However, this thought is quickly dashed as you read the title of the reading: “The Triangular Trade.” At least call it what it was, you think to yourself. The Slave Trade. You read the handout. It feels insensitive, defensive, deceptive. It doesn’t teach you about people who looked like you. It doesn’t even seem to care about them.  


What is this worksheet and what is wrong with it? 

The worksheet entitled “The Triangular Trade” (no authors listed) linked above was used in a Boston-area 7th grade classroom this February for Black History Month. Regardless of the teacher’s intentions, the worksheet is culturally insensitive at best and an insult to students and parents at worst. 

If the worksheet made any attempt to consider an African American student’s perspective, it failed. In fact, the unnamed authors of “The Triangular Trade” unmistakably place Europeans as the protagonists in this story of western expansion. Upon reaching the New World, these Europeans, who “were unsuited to the climate and suffered under tropical diseases” were in desperate need of a workforce. The authors explain that Native Americans were an “unreliable” workforce in the New World because they were dying of diseases brought from Europe. They refer to the human beings living in 15th century West Africa as “good[s]” who “were used to a tropical climate… and… could be ‘worked very hard’ (no citation) on plantations or in mines.” Europeans are the protagonists and other peoples are obstacles or resources.  

The authors try to teach slavery without placing blame on Europeans or racism. In fact, they try to create sympathy for them: “Conditions on the slave ships were terrible, but the estimated death rate of around 13% is lower than the mortality rate for seamen, officers and passengers on the same voyages.” Given that there were many more slaves per ship than seamen, officers, and passengers, reporting mortality rates rather than the total number of deaths is a deliberate choice to prioritize the European perspective over the African perspective. 

This white perspective is reinforced over and over throughout the reading, and it directly feeds into the largest issue of the reading. There is never an explicit statement that slavery was bad. There is also no explanation that slavery directly has impacted racial inequity as we understand it today. We need to heal from racism, whether that means learning about one’s own privilege or unlearning stereotypes. The first step is to acknowledge the harm that has been done and the impact it has on our communities today. 

What Black History Month Can Be 

Black History Month exists to celebrate African Americans’ achievements, contributions to society, and central role in U.S. history. It was born out of Negro History week, an annual celebration sponsored by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) that began in 1926.  

Black History Month is partly so special because it urges us to reconsider our understanding of history. So much of how we understand our world derives from what we learned in school. History curricula often center around the accomplishments of Europeans, colonists, white explorers, and white Americans, but Black History Month gives teachers the opportunity to recontextualize American history and, consequently, how students understand themselves and their world today. When African-American students receive a handout that depicts Africans as agentless and joyless and neglects to state that slavery was wrong, then not only is an important and rare opportunity missed, but also harm is inflicted. It teaches Black students that even when they’re in the story, they are minor characters. 

A culturally incompetent lesson can, depending on the degree of incompetency, ruin a student’s day or cause emotional trauma that stays with them for years. A culturally incompetent teacher or curricula can disengage a student of color, leading to underperformance or alienation.  

Black History Month should continue to celebrate Black accomplishments. Black history is American history, and we should fully embrace it and our own continued learning. For great educational resources, including ones that analyze Africans’ and African Americans’ agency in shaping their own lives and America itself, explore Facing History and Ourselves. One lesson on Black History isn’t enough, but it’s a start. 

Why this matters to everyone 

Everyone is affected by racism. As an institutionalized system of oppression, it’s impossible to escape its conscious and unconscious effects. It’s taught in classrooms and reinforced through media. Without a deliberate effort to unlearn false historical and racial narratives, institutional and internalized racism will continue to dictate our beliefs and actions. Everyone—teachers, CEOs, police officers, elected officials—needs to understand all the ways in which racism manifests itself if we truly want to eliminate it.  

If you’re looking for a starting point or want to deepen your learning, join YW Boston’s Stand Against Racism campaign this April. Thousands participate in this annual campaign to raise awareness and empower action toward eliminating racism. If you’re ready to make lasting changes in your organization in support of greater diversity and inclusion, schedule a consultation with our InclusionBoston team.


About InclusionBoston

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