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Black History Month at 40: Time for Facelift? [The Atlantic]

Written on 27 February 2016, 08:45am under As Seen In

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In schools across the country, notwithstanding nut allergies, peanuts overflowed this month as schoolchildren learned about George Washington Carver, a world-famous chemist who made important agricultural discoveries—and one of America’s celebrated Black History Month figures. It’s less likely that students studied Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, or Fannie Lou Hamer, though. And that’s part of the difficulty with how Black History Month is observed in schools today.

In one corner, advocates of Black History Month argue that a special month is needed to celebrate and recognize the achievements of black Americans in a country where European history dominates historical discourse. In the other corner, critics cast doubt that Black History Month is still relevant with the gains made in race relations—a black U.S. president the most visible sign—and detractors charge it is detrimental in the long term to pigeonhole black history into a month-long observance. Somewhere caught in the middle are educators and schools.
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The problem lies not with specialized months to commemorate marginalized groups and communities, said Willis, but with schools that fail to incorporate the full range of diversity as part of their mission. “If there is a concerted effort to approach Black History Month in new ways each year, then we can combat some of the issues of only highlighting certain movements, figures, and events,” she said. Also, learning more about black women and LGBTQ individuals in her formative years would have put her more at ease identifying as a transgender woman.

“It shouldn’t have taken 20 years for me to learn about Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, and Marsha P. Johnson,” said Willis. “As well, I think it’s of the utmost importance to highlight the figures of today. We tend to only highlight contemporary celebrities and politicians, ignoring that we have activists and community organizers that are still making an impact on a daily basis.”

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