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.
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 during only 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.
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.
Like many people of my generation who cut their teeth on the critical insights of bell hooks, news of her passing in December unleashed a wave of reflection for me about the ways she’s impacted me as a person and public scholar. Beyond the many moments of resonance I experienced while reading her writings over the years, her impact on me is most powerfully encapsulated in an experience I had in 2008 when I met her.
While the concept of “human rights” figures prominently in the domestic policy and public life of many nations around the world, history reveals that the United States took a decidedly different path. As historian Carol Anderson details in her book Eyes Off the Prize (2003), the nation’s use of the concept reflects its history of racism—one in which narrower notions of “civil rights” gained currency in domestic affairs over and against the broader conceptions of “human rights” that remain central to the nation’s foreign policy. Having observed the inability of the U.S. government to uphold even the “civil rights” ostensibly guaranteed to them by the U.S. Constitution and legislation, a series of African American leaders have nevertheless invoked the language of “human rights” to underscore the urgency of their situation on the international stage. These figures—including W.E.B. DuBois, William Patterson, Malcolm X, and Tommie Smith—have played vital roles in an underacknowledged story of Black people leading global antiracist movements while also pushing their own country to be better. Moreover, this multigenerational story of vision, persistence, and recurring difficulty brings the historic significance of the recently announced United Nations investigation into human rights abuses against Black people around the world into sharper focus.
Have you ever wondered how history itself is made? Though we often talk about individuals and groups “making history” by making certain types of contributions to society, less frequently do we talk about the complex process through which historians construct their accounts of the past. During American Archives Month this October, we have a chance to explore the central role of archives in shaping our perceptions of the past, the various forces that determine the materials and voices included in a given archive, and how this insight can enrich the way we think about historical materials and even produce our own.
The desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas exactly sixty-four years ago this weekend remains a flashpoint in American history, the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and the history of education in the United States. Following the Brown v. Board decision of 1954 which rendered racial segregation of schools unconstitutional, the NAACP devised a plan to desegregate Central High School as a test case within the new legal environment created by the Brown decision. A group of nine Black students were selected to integrate the school and, upon their arrival, faced immense violent opposition from white mobs and armed forces deployed by Arkansas’ governor. Historian Taylor Branch described the event as “the most severe test of the Constitution since the Civil War” and the level of conflict it engendered seems to lend further credence to this comparison.
This week, the world is watching a devastating humanitarian situation unfold in Haiti where a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the island and is thought to have killed at least 2,189 people, injured at least 12,000, and left tens of thousands homeless. This comes on the heels of the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse only a month ago which sparked considerable social unrest. In addition to these immense casualties and compounding traumas, the arrival of Tropical Storm Grace has complicated rescue efforts. Further, past political corruption and mishandling of relief funds by foreign NGOs have made many external actors reticent to issue monetary support, even in the face of widespread hunger and displacement. Despite these substantial barriers, a group of dedicated Haitians and Haitian Americans are rising to the challenge of delivering necessary aid to the Haitian people and inviting others to join them in their cause. As the news stories emerging from Haiti grow ever complex, a deeper exploration of the history of Haiti—including the resilience and resistance of its people—helps to illuminate how we got here and the broader significance of supporting Haitian-led relief efforts.