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Black History Month in the Age of Book Bans



Nearly a century ago, the historian Carter G. Woodson started a movement to teach Black history in America’s schools. First called Negro History Week and now Black History Month, it has been an oasis amid curricula that have too often and for too long either completely ignored Black people or treated them as subordinates. Even though Black History Month can sometimes be commemorated in ways that have turned rote and bland, many enterprising educators, librarians, and parents have used the occasion to bring stories, new interpretations of the past, and intellectual challenges to students of all ages who wouldn’t encounter them otherwise. And books have always been at the heart of their efforts.

Today, however, the books that have been deployed by adults to help in this passing on of history and sensibility are disappearing from school libraries. Led by mostly conservative lawmakers across the country, at least 12 state legislatures or school boards have formally restricted discussions and books that point to the existence of racism in America, under “critical race theory” bans; and in many districts, parents and activists have organized mass cullings of books. According to the American Library Association, 2023 appears to have been a record year for book bans and challenges, most of which targeted “books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Every Black History Month is a fine time for book recommendations, and there are plenty of new arrivals and classics to call out this year, but in the current environment of censoriousness, I decided to ask teachers about their favorite books, and about what teaching Black history feels like in a time of book bans. Some of these teachers have already been involved in disputes involving bans. Some have not, but are still concerned. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What book are you most excited about teaching for Black History Month?

In my AP language class, I began teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me at the end of January, but the study will continue into February; and I love to offer James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew,” found in The Fire Next Time, and it pairs well with Coates’s narrative. In recent years, I have found some amazing current Black British writers, including Caleb Femi and Irenosen Okojie, and I love reading Okojie’s short stories with my English IV students. They are brilliant and complex displays of magical realism, which really encourage student engagement. — Mary Wood, 11th- and 12th-grade English; Chapin, South Carolina

The books I routinely teach, sometimes coinciding with Black History Month and sometimes not, are Nikki Grimes’s Bronx Masquerade, Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the latter two of which I have started teaching through excerpts as part of reading lessons. Also, I included Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for the first time this year. I am currently teaching Maryland Governor Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore. I would love the opportunity to teach Toni Morrison’s Beloved again; it’s one of my favorite books of all time. — Jackson Lee Bryant, high-school teacher; Lexington, South Carolina

I am looking forward to sharing one of my personal favorite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston. It’s a classic novel that I remember reading when I was close to their ages. Since I teach math, I do not directly teach lessons where the focal point is on literature, but I still integrate Black-history lessons during February. It is not just the responsibility of English and language-arts teachers to promote Black literature, but all educators. — Sydnee Jenkins, fifth-grade math; Nashville, Tennessee

illustration of a group of figures sharing books
What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month has meant more to me as I’ve gotten older than it ever did when I was in school. Growing up as the son of a minister, in a Baptist church in Charlotte, North Carolina, church was always where we got information about Black History Month. In school, we were often asked the cynical question: “Why is there a Black History Month but not a White History Month?”

As a teacher, at a school where I have been the only African American in my department for the last 12 years, I realize now that those earlier experiences have given me a much deeper appreciation for my exposure to aspects of Black history. I hope in some brief way I can bring that experience to my own students. I can say, “I met some of the lunch-counter protesters from North Carolina A&T,” and it leaves me in awe. To know of my own father’s role in trying to desegregate his small North Carolina town and to see the results he achieved continues to amaze me. While Black history would be best included in the history of the United States and the world, the glaring and deliberate omissions have constantly led to the revelation of some aspect of Black history that will still seem new to some.  — Maurice Thomas, high-school English and journalism; Columbia, South Carolina

Black History Month is such a proud time for my people, and I would be remiss not to appreciate and celebrate our culture, our lives, our history. Being Black is the greatest gift ever, and I acknowledge the ability that I have to even celebrate it. But at the same time, it saddens me to see what this month has become. A special time for my people to be loved out loud has turned into a month in which my people are exploited, mocked, and placated by hollow celebrations. Black History Month should be the one time a year we are able to just be ourselves, but unfortunately, it has become a farce. I love being Black. This month means something to me. I just struggle with what it was intended to be and what it has become.  — Markus T. Howell, high-school English and African American literature; Upper Marlboro, Maryland

illustration of a person reading a book with hands reaching for the book
Has the political picture in America/your district changed how you approach Black History Month and the books you choose? If so, how?

Yes. The polarization of the political climate has reinvigorated me and changed how I approach Black History Month. Florida’s and other states’ rejections of Black studies and Black literature are society’s latest attempt to erase Black history. This is an attempt to silence, miseducate, and discourage. The current political picture has caused me to be more intentional in representing Black history in every aspect of teaching and learning. My classroom is decorated with a multitude of posters and biographies of distinguished Black figures, and each day we have a spotlight mini-lesson. For the entire month of February, students participate in Black-history trivia. I assign a Black-history project. This is all in an effort to ensure that we are not silenced, miseducated, or discouraged. If I can spark a conversation, or a curious mind, that might help push the needle forward, and combat the current political picture in this nation.  — Sydnee Jenkins

Absolutely not. As a Black teacher of young Black and brown children, I believe it is my duty to expose the next generation to as many of our works as possible. In a society that is slowly (but not subtly) attempting to take away our access to these texts but also attempting to hide and suppress our history, I do everything possible to educate our youth. From books to art and, of course, our music, it is of the utmost importance that the youngins see how rich our history is, so that they can then do the same for the generations after them that they will lead. So much of what they see now does not exactly highlight Blackness in the most positive light, so I do my best to have them read texts from the most prolific writers—such as Toni Morrison—but also up-and-coming young Black writers who look like them as well.
— Markus T. Howell

Between the World and Me was censored in my AP language-and-composition class last February. The entire situation was heartbreaking and destructive. Some teachers may have acquiesced silently to the outlandish and unethical repudiation of the Black perspective and the interruption of instruction, and I understand why they might do that; challenging people who organize to attack education and truth is no easy feat. But I refused to back down, and I made sure that Coates’s book would be part of my curriculum for this school year.

A great many people continue to question this intention, asking why I would employ a book that has allegedly caused so much trouble for me, for my community. The fact is: That book didn’t hurt people; people hurt the book. Folks used it in a tragically defamatory manner to further a dangerous agenda of whitewashing American history and stifling Black experiences. Because of those actions, I reconciled that we must resist such efforts and organize effectively to preserve our democracy.  — Mary Wood

It has definitely impacted the books I choose and how I present them. The Other Wes Moore is one that all English 2 teachers at my school use, so there is security in that choice. Other than that, I have been careful to select passages from other books, including Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers, that I can contextualize in ways that are less likely to “offend” those white students and parents who might be looking to be offended. Thankfully, I have found these individuals to be in the minority, outside of board meetings, that is.  — Jackson Lee Bryant

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Source: The Atlantic

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