Black History Month is a time for recognition, reflection, and inspiration as we acknowledge the contributions of African Americans to the progress of the United States. Dr. Nanika Coor offers 6 ways parents can share Black history with children beyond the month of February.
Happy Black History Month! All month long I’ve been centering African-American contributions to the history of the United States and beyond!
In my last Black History Month episode today, I’m talking about ways parents and other adults who play significant roles in children’s lives can share the history and human experience of the African and African American diaspora with kids all year round. Stick around until the end to hear about the everyday ways you can teach kids to dismantle anti-Blackness, and how you can challenge yourself to create an anti-racist family culture.
Help kids stay grounded in and take inspiration from the ways the enslaved persisted, resisted, and endured.
Not only is the acknowledgment of Black history and culture relegated to a single month, but so often the discussion of the history of Black people in America is limited to enslavement, trauma, and oppression. While we can never forget the brutality of the system of enslavement and its influence on present-day life, it’s important to give kids more context. The African American experience does involve historical trauma, but it also involves survival, resistance, resilience and a globally emulated culture that thrived and continues to thrive within the destructive lie of racial hierarchies of both past and present.
Here are 6 ways to share Black history with children 365 days a year!
1. Offer accurate information about the business of enslavement
Kids do need to be given real information about how enslavement worked. They should be told about the horrors of kidnapping, forcible transport, and the racism that had to be developed because the culture and system of enslavement depended on the dehumanization of Black people. It needed to be a condition from which there was no escape—generations of people were born into it. It required making it illegal for Black people to learn to read, lest they become educated about what was happening to them or get ideas on how to stop it. It depended on the separation of families, sexual violence, and violent punishment to maintain control. It’s important not to gloss over these atrocities and the historical and generational trauma that reverberates in African American communities to this day.
2. Highlight African American survival despite oppression
In the midst of control by force, exploitation, and profound brutality, African Americans still went on to create one of the most vibrant cultures in the world. African Americans have made outstanding achievements in literature, design, science, music, philosophy, fashion, agriculture, education, medicine, dance, and beyond. When the business of enslavement was abolished, freed Black people worked to reunite with family members from whom they were separated, they registered to vote, and they sought to legitimize their relationships through marriage.
3. Emphasize African Americans’ amazing acts of resistance
Counter harmful narratives about enslaved persons’ docile acceptance of bondage by teaching kids about the ways Black people were and are involved in large-scale and active resistance movements. Share information about uprisings and revolts of enslaved people, the abolitionist movement of the mid-1800s, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and the modern Black Lives Matter movement. These are pivotal moments in American history. One of the reasons enslavement was so brutal is that Black people consistently resisted it in almost every aspect of daily life.
In addition to actively aggressive resistance, enslaved African Americans passively resisted in more covert and everyday ways as well. They might resist forced labor via the feigning of illness, deliberately working at a slow pace, destruction of farming equipment and property, even sometimes using self-harm as a way to ensure they couldn’t work. Enslaved women forced to be cooks sometimes poisoned the enslavers’ food. The enslaved secretly learned and taught each other to read and write. They secretly practiced their own religion. They planned escapes via secret meetings and sent messages to one another via coded messages in songs and visual images in quilts.
All kids benefit from this knowledge, and can take pride in or inspiration from the ways Black people survived and thrived despite a brutal and unjust system, and that they never gave up hope even while enduring inhumane conditions. But it’s specifically important for Black children to have this information. Black children can take pride in the strength and courage—in the face of sadistic and often deadly consequences—with which their ancestors resisted the system, and never surrendered their humanity.
4. Hold space for kids’ big feelings about the institution of enslavement
Welcome any upset children may express as they learn about enslavement and its aftermath, rather than avoiding it out of fear. It makes sense to be upset about upsetting things—it’s a normal and empathetic response. Share that you have anger and sadness about this history as well if you do. At the same time help kids stay grounded in and take inspiration from the ways the enslaved persisted, resisted, and endured. African American culture flourished and thrived both within and after the abolishment of the institution of enslavement. Help kids channel their big emotions into learning more about the history of resistance—something that they otherwise may never learn unless you offer it.
5. Model co-liberation
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Help White and non-Black children of color understand the ways in which White supremacy and racism impact not just people of color, but White people too.
6. Disrupt anti-Blackness by instilling anti-racism
Take everyday opportunities to talk to kids about racism. Talk about the images they see on shows, films, the news, and social media. Do they have accurate or biased representations of Black people—if they include the existence of Black people at all? Normalize and lift up Blackness by making sure your young child’s toys, books, and media include positive images of Black people, their achievements, and their resilience.
For school projects, make sure kids are taking into consideration marginalized voices and perspectives on the topics they choose. When consuming research or media, help kids think critically about who wrote or created the material. How might the creator’s identity, social position, or era in which they are creating this material influence the story they tell and the lens through which they look at the events they’re depicting?
Help White teens and non-Black teens of color think critically about systems of oppression by engaging them in discussions about how they think they benefit from White supremacy. How might the exact same activities they do every day be viewed differently by the police or other authority figures if they were Black teens instead? How do they think their overall life experience is different than their Black peers’ life experience?
For the next 30 days, make anti-racism a regular part of your family culture. Learn along with your children about large-scale racial injustice and the small-scale ways that may play out in your day-to-day life. What might an incident of injustice look like? What is your family’s plan individually and together if you do witness an act of injustice? Record the incident with your phone? Speak up? Teach White and non-Black children to have zero tolerance for anti-Black racism. Practice phrases they can use to ‘call in’ or ‘call out’ their same-race peers about racist behavior. Brainstorm with them how they might use their privilege to stand up for their Black friends, or identify the trusted adults they can go to for help standing up for other kids. What difference does this make in your family’s racialized experience in the world? What does it bring up for you or your children emotionally? I’d love to hear about your experience!
The fight for the recognition, respect, and protection of Black people’s humanity hasn’t ended in our current times.
You can help kids understand how looking at the past helps us understand our present moment in a more nuanced way. This is why it’s so important to teach a true and honest Black History that centers resistance and resilience. The fight for the recognition, respect, and protection of Black people’s humanity hasn’t ended in our current times, and it certainly doesn’t end on the last day of February.