Black History Month: Overcoming the Barriers to Taking Part
Black History Month is just around the corner, and in a year with so much discussion and awareness of racial injustices around the world and at home, it feels as important as ever. Which means schools will also be feeling increasing pressure to get it right. I want to address some of the barriers that might stop schools from engaging with Black History Month, sharing top tips for doing it justice.
‘We want to take part, but we don’t have any space in the timetable- we have to focus on the core subjects!’
The best way to solve this is to embed it. Black History Month doesn’t have to mean the school puts on specific assemblies, workshops or lessons on black history; it can look like art lessons including black artists, English lessons using examples from texts written by black authors, maths questions using more diverse and inclusive scenarios, science displays celebrating black scientists. If you embed black representation and history throughout your core subjects, every month becomes Black History Month!
- Be creative
- Do your research! You’ll find you don’t need to shoe-horn Rosa Parks into an English lesson for example, you’ll find lots of brilliant black authors if you look!
- Reinforce stereotypes- be careful that your approach isn’t ‘othering’ black people, using stereotypes or providing one-dimensional representations of black people
‘We don’t have any black students in our school, so it’s not really relevant to us’
There is a common misconception that Black History Month is only meaningful for black students. Nope! Whilst it provides an important vehicle for black students to be able to see themselves represented, it is essential that young people of all backgrounds are given the opportunity to understand national and global history- and black history is part of that. Black History Month is a chance for everyone to learn about, recognise and celebrate black history as part of understanding the world we live in.
- Think about ways to make black history relevant; you could look at black history in your local area (you might be surprised!), or you could structure your Black History Month by highlighting black people who have demonstrated your school’s values through their achievements
- Put young people from minority backgrounds on the spot, or in a humiliating environment. Remember, this is about celebrating black history as part of collective history.
‘We just don’t have the expertise’
Don’t worry – you’re not expected to have all of the answers, Black History Month is a great opportunity to learn. This year has seen a huge increase in collective awareness and discussion about race and racism, which in turn has highlighted a multitude of resources on these topics. Your school’s message this Black History Month might be one about learning and reflection: ‘we are going to learn more about this together!’ You could book some staff training, set up a staff reading group, or a working group of staff and students who are interested and passionate to get the ball rolling. Talk and listen to members of your local community, parents and carers and young people and harness their experience and knowledge.
- Get external support- there are lots of individuals and organisations who can bring and share their expertise
- Make use of the wealth of available resources- we’ll share some for you below
- Be honest about your limitations- don’t try to fudge through and make things up!
- Use lack of expertise as an excuse not to take part, instead, use it as motivation.
‘We study the American Civil Rights Movement in history anyway’
That’s a start, but that is only one part of black history. It is essential that schools don’t only discuss black stories of victimhood and oppression. Whilst the Civil Rights Movement and the Transatlantic Slave Trade have important moments, lessons and key figures within them, black history is so much richer than that. There is also a tendency to only look at black history in the USA, or South Africa without highlighting that black people have been a key part of British history.
- Teach about great African kingdoms (www.africankingdoms.co.uk), black people making history today (Stormzy, Nicola Adams, Bernardine Evaristo to name just a few), or black peoples’ contributions to society (NASA scientists and mathematicians, inventors, Drs, politicians…)
- Shine a light on black British history. Books such as Black Tudors and Black and British can provide a starting point
- Centre black voices in all their diversity: Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is iconic, but is just one voice. See also Vanessa Nakate the young climate activist, Ade Adepitan the Paralympic basketball player and presenter, Marsha P Johnson the black trans rights activist, Michelle Obama the former first lady…
- Get stuck on stories of struggle
- Present black people as passive victims or centre white people as the leaders of black people’s emancipation
‘We don’t want to be tokenistic, how can we get it right?’
Absolutely, it is so important that Black History Month, and indeed all equality education doesn’t become a tick box exercise. Some good questions to reflect on as you prepare your approach:
- Why are we doing this? What are we hoping to achieve with this work? (Hint, it shouldn’t be about improving your reputation…)
- What impact could the work we are planning to do have on the young people we work with? Are we putting in the necessary groundwork to ensure our approach won’t negatively impact on black students or staff?
- What learning, or even ‘unlearning’ do I need to do before carrying out this work?
- How can we use Black History Month as an opportunity to challenge stereotypes, broaden our representation and open discussion?
- How can we involve our students in the process? A student consultation on their thoughts, questions and worries can be a good starting point
- How can we engage with our parents, carers and the local community?
- How can we make sure black identities are represented, and black history is embedded throughout our school and curriculum all year round? (Check out The Black Curriculum’s work on this)
- Ask for help
- Check out this list of useful resources as a starting point: www.equaliteach.co.uk/reject-racism
- Recognise the importance and value of this work for your students, staff and community