Early this year, an unprecedented announcement issued from the White House: a Black woman may become the next appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. What’s more, attorney and jurist Ketanji Brown Jackson was named in February as the front runner for this role. This potential appointment of the first Black woman Supreme Court Justice would be historic not just because she is the first but also because this event has emerged from a historical and contemporary context in which Black people, women of all races, and Black women in particular remain marginalized under the law. To watch a Black woman potentially enter a role in which she will have such a considerable impact on American law for many generations to come is immensely powerful when viewed in the context of this history. Further, the confirmation process surrounding another recent Supreme Court appointment brought issues of sexism and gendered violence to the fore, revealing—in the minds of some—the urgency of ensuring that the U.S. Supreme Court welcomes justices who have exhibited a commitment to challenging various manifestations of sexism and injustice. Whether we regard it as a symbolic marker of social progress or an opportunity for tangible policy change, Jackson’s nomination is a historic event that is poised to permanently alter the face of the Supreme Court.
At Facing History, we believe that educators have both an opportunity and a duty to help students grasp the historical and contemporary significance of civic participation. But civic participation has always taken a wide array of forms. From voting and running for public office to civil disobedience and more violent forms of direct action, all of these visions of civic participation line our history and introducing them to students as they surfaced in different contexts can help students reflect upon their own values as civic actors in the present. One approach to this educational task is to consider the competing visions of civic participation that have been articulated and acted upon within the global Black community—a community whose circumstances have inspired, if not necessitated, the use of a wide array of political strategies to combat oppression. The approaches that Black leaders have embraced across space and time are numerous and have encompassed assimilationist and integrationist conceptions of social change, alongside contrasting approaches rooted in Black self-determination and nationalism.
In January, the nation stood still as we learned that renowned actor Sidney Poitier passed away at 94 years old. But his passing is not only significant to cinephiles but to anyone interested in grasping the arc of social change in the United States over the last 75 years. A pioneering Black actor, Poitier’s acting career broke significant barriers in entertainment through a series of singular performances, but his social impact reflects more than just his acting chops. Poitier was both an actor and an activist—and despite a mixed array of perspectives over the years on the ways that he represented Black people in film—he undoubtedly played a leading role in African Americans’ fight for civil rights and more positive media representations from the silver screen to the streets.
Here at Facing History, we see heritage and awareness months as opportunities to deepen our knowledge of and attention to the histories and contemporary experiences of historically marginalized communities. However, the focus on celebrating these communities over one particular month can further marginalize the very experiences we are hoping to elevate. With this in mind, what follows is an invitation to engage with important themes raised by Black History Month this February and throughout all of the months of the year.
Some members of the Facing History staff are exploring these five new books published within the last year, and we invite you to explore them alongside us and share your reactions with us. These 5 titles cover essential topics from Black history with young audiences and address contemporary experiences of young Black people.
Below is excerpted promotional text from each book’s publisher and a link to a related Facing History resource to empower educators to bring parallel themes into the classroom:
Defiant: Growing Up in the Jim Crow South
by Wade Hudson
“Born in 1946 in Mansfield, Louisiana, Wade Hudson came of age against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. From their home on Mary Street, his close-knit family watched as the country grappled with desegregation, as the Klan targeted the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and as systemic racism struck across the nation and in their hometown. Amidst it all, Wade was growing up. Getting into scuffles, playing baseball, immersing himself in his church community, and starting to write. Most important, Wade learned how to find his voice and use it. From his family, his community, and his college classmates, Wade learned the importance of fighting for change by confronting the laws and customs that marginalized and demeaned people. This powerful memoir reveals the struggles, joys, love, and ongoing resilience that it took to grow up Black in segregated America, and the lessons that carry over to our fight for a better future.” –Crown Books for Young Readers
Now during the Olympics, and throughout each academic year, we have the opportunity to explore a number of themes that connect the lives and contributions of Black athletes past and present. Beyond the 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team immortalized in the film Cool Runnings, Black athletes have played more central roles at the Winter Olympics than many people might realize. As we cheer on the 2022 Black Olympians, Black History Month is a great time to look back on the impact that Black Olympians and other Black athletes have beyond the world of sports.
Here at Facing History, we see heritage and awareness months as opportunities to deepen our knowledge of and attention to the histories and contemporary experiences of historically marginalized communities. However, the focus on celebrating these communities over one particular month can further marginalize the very experiences we are hoping to elevate. With this in mind, what follows is an invitation to engage with important themes raised by Black History Month this February and
throughout all of the months of the year.
Each year during Black History Month, the stories of figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks are often elevated—and with good reason. These figures made contributions to Black history and, by extension, American history, that cannot be overstated. But there are so many significant Black historical figures who often don’t get as much air time. Learning about the larger systems and historical events that have played central roles in shaping Black history is vitally important, but it is also valuable to explore the individual lives, ideas, choices, and legacies of key figures in that unfolding story. Knitting these approaches together allows both educators and students to not only gain a deeper grasp of a given history, but also humanize the key actors and the unique worlds they inhabited.
Brown Girl Dreaming (2014) is Jacqueline Woodson’s celebrated coming-of-age memoir written with young readers in mind. Named one of TIME Magazine’s Best YA Books of All Time among countless other accolades, Brown Girl Dreaming recounts Woodson’s experience growing up as a young Black girl in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York during the era of Jim Crow as her sense of herself as a young woman and writer begin to take shape. While remaining grounded in her own personal and familial journey, Woodson gracefully touches upon a host of issues that continue to face the African American community, ranging from the health consequences of substandard housing to mass incarceration as they touched her own family, all written from the vantage point of herself as a child. Far from a one-note tale of woe, however, Woodson’s narrative glimmers with the abundant hope, love, and humanity that coexists with these phenomena in Woodson’s own heart, and in her circle of relatives and friends. Though her story includes themes likely to be relatable to most readers—such as feeling a lack of belonging in the place where she lives and her process of discovering her own unique brilliance in the shadow of a precocious sibling—it also highlights experiences unique to African American history, culture, and the nuances of Woodson’s own biography. This movement from universal to particular and back again makes Brown Girl Dreaming an ideal book to teach in the middle school classroom, and Facing History is offering a guide and live event with the author to help educators do just that.
Today, Americans across the country are observing Martin Luther King Day. It’s a moment for reflection and service; for considering the life and legacy of an extraordinary individual; and for recommitting ourselves to the unfinished work he championed. At a time of extraordinary bigotry and violence, Dr. King challenged all Americans to confront our history of racial discrimination, to open our eyes to injustice, and to be intentional about building a better future. His message – of clear-eyed understanding and unlimited possibility – is as resonant today as it was when he lived more than half a century ago.
This Monday, we will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s transformative life and legacy. The day provides an important opportunity for students to study the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, as well as our country’s continuing struggle to create a more just society and representative democracy. Here are 9 Facing History resources that can help you reflect on your own teaching practices, teach the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and explore contemporary issues around racial justice and democracy in the United States.