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Making African American History Matter

by Jessica Parnell | Feb 12, 2015 | 4 min read

Throughout the month of February, classrooms and homes around the nation will focus on the history and accomplishments of African Americans. For good reason!

However, so many of our children will learn about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X in an effort to highlight the efforts of the black community. But, all too often it stops there.

Maybe this is because it’s how it’s always been done — topical studies that focus on black history because for too long, there was nothing being said. Perhaps it’s because we are afraid to truly approach and integrate the study of black Americans into every subject because it unearths a mountain of pain, struggle, and shame.

Whether we like it or not, this month brings up wounds in our society and communities that have yet to heal, struggles that have flowed from generation to generation, sometimes as a trickle, and others, as a flood. We might be tempted to gloss over the struggle, the pain, or even to skip these topics entirely because they make us fearful of how our children might react, and that we cannot do the subject justice. Or perhaps we are simply doing what has always been done without an examination of the lasting impact.

It is with this unease that I approach Black History Month — because my children have brown skin, because I want it to matter more than this month, and because the wounds and struggle are still so real.

As we plan for these coming weeks in which we allow African Americans to take center stage in classrooms and homes across the nation, I am left with the question: How can I teach my homeschooled children about the struggles, contributions, and triumphs of black people with respect and honor, without separating them from the whole, and in a way that naturally builds upon our current areas of study? Should I recognize Black History Month at all?

The Problem of the Month

There are several problems I see with approaching Black History Month as a “highlight” in our lessons. First, when we give special attention to a topic for just a season, we often separate it from its context. Our students, therefore, can’t connect what they learn to prior knowledge, or the “whole” of history and human achievement. This makes the struggles and accomplishments of black people seem unordinary or out-of-place in the large, grand scheme of overall history.

As a result, our children learn about Martin Luther King Jr. without learning about the Freedom Riders, learn about slavery without learning about the abolitionists, and about colonial history without learning about the culture of the slave communities within the colonies. Unintentionally, we make the story of black people a separate but unequal entity, amputating them from the larger story of human existence.

It would be much better to make an intentional effort to weave examples of the achievements, discoveries, writings, etc. of minorities throughout your year into every subject. This way, they are seen as a natural part of the tapestry of human history.

As we study colonial culture and experience, we should also study the experience and culture of African slaves; scientific studies include an examination of African tribal remedies; and a study of art history naturally includes examples from black artists in every era.

Then, we are not seeing the history and contributions of blacks separately or through the lens of domination, but rather as human beings who bring unique and important contributions to every part of life.

Teaching Tough Topics: Focus on Character Studies

Some of us stray away from teaching certain periods or topics within the history because they are filled with sorrow, pain, violence, racism, and ugliness. But it’s critical that our children understand the full story and experiences of African Americans in our nation, including the struggles and oppression. The “when” and the “how” will depend upon your child’s maturity, age, and life experience.

What’s important is to talk about the struggle for equality, and those who choose to fight for it despite its high cost, and to present African Americans as they were and are — a vibrant culture and integral part of our nation’s history and growth.

A great way to do this is through character studies. Consider the character traits that you want to see developed in your child: resilience, strength, courage, etc. and weave them into lessons naturally. Lately, I’ve observed that the next generation lacks in resiliency, in being able to cope through and bounce back from hardship. Taking time during this month to focus on the resiliency of African American poets, artists, activists, etc. will not only enable us to appreciate and learn more about the contributions of these great people, but also to learn from them an invaluable and necessary quality to emulate.

Integrate Naturally Without Struggle

So, how can you make the most of this month without allowing it to detract from either the importance of black history or your current progress? Integrating great examples of black history, art, music, etc. into your home and lessons doesn’t have to be a struggle! View this month as an opportunity to begin weaving or expanding upon your current use and study of black accomplishments in your homeschooling curriculum. How much more interested are we in a topic when we can place it into context of the larger whole that we are studying? Much more!

Hook your students with relevant and interesting topics that are natural extensions of what you are already studying. Add a study of Charles Drew, physician and father of the modern blood bank, to your unit on the body. Replace a few authors in your literature unit with black authors and study not just their works, but the context and biography of each author. Music appreciation can focus on the development of rock and roll through an examination of the Jazz Age.

Black History Month is important. To undo the damage that ignoring the contributions of African Americans to our culture and society has caused, we must make an intentional effort to weave their stories and accomplishments into all that we teach or we risk continuing to diminish them. Doing so doesn’t have to be for one month, but should be something we work towards on a regular basis in learning and life to the benefit of us all.


Jessica Parnell
Hello everyone! I’m Jessica Parnell — mom, homeschool evaluator, teacher, and CEO of Bridgeway Academy. In my 20+ years of experience as a homeschool mom and evaluator, I have had the privilege of meeting homeschoolers that take a variety of approaches to their education. It is their many stories and successes that inspire me in my own homeschooling and I love to pass on the knowledge that I have gained from them to other homeschooling families. The one constant that always remains true is that there’s no such thing as a “cookie cutter child.” Each child is fearfully and wonderfully made and as a result, learns and functions differently. It’s our job to ensure that we’re raising each child to fulfill their individual purpose and when we can teach in a way that inspires them, we are on our way to homeschool success. When I’m not writing or teaching my children, I like to ski, write and participate in triathlons. I graduated from Kutztown University with a Bachelor of Science in Education and a Masters in English and I am currently pursuing a degree in Neuroleadership.
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