Is Black History Month limiting the teaching of black history?

This year, Canada celebrates its 20th annual Black History Month. But despite the enduring legacy of the event, there are those who question whether the occasion is, in effect, limiting the teaching of black history.

Educators questioning how to broaden black history teaching year-round

Each February, Canada and the U.S. remembers black history and historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. But not everyone agrees with maintaining the tradition of Black History Month. (AP Photo/Copyright 1963 Archive-TLC/HO)

Natasha Henry, an educator and historian in Mississauga, Ont., has worked for years developing programs and workshops aimed at getting more teachers to add black history to their curriculum.

As February is Black History Month in Canada and the U.S., teachers across the country will be injecting more of the subject into their classrooms. But Henry wants people to get past limiting the teaching of black history to a single month.

"I really am pushing for teachers to get outside of that February box," she said. "Facilitating workshops and doing presentations — these things can go beyond and outside of February."

Henry is not alone in that sentiment. There is a debate in educational circles about whether Black History Month is an effective means to teach black history and, possibly, improve race relations — or whether the one-month focus hinders these things.

CBC Forum on black history and education

"Imbed the contributions and experiences of African people in school curriculums, allow for diversity in stories told and story tellers." — a comment from Sema on the CBC Forum chat on black history and education. Read the full discussion here.

On this, its 20th anniversary of official celebration across Canada, some of the month's staunchest critics have even called for it to be abolished. Most recently, the American actress and Fox News contributor Stacey Dash spoke out against the celebration, saying it needs to be abolished to end what she said amounted to categorizing African-Americans as a special interest group.

Actor Morgan Freeman has also voiced his opposition to the idea of a special month for black history. In a 2008 interview on 60 Minutes, he said black history is part of the entire history of America and it should not be constrained to a single month.

As for Henry, she disagrees with the idea of ending Black History Month. And while she wants to see the study of black history throughout the year, she does not see how the elimination of Black History Month would necessarily lead to that outcome.

Natasha Henry said though she wants black history taught throughout the year, and that abolishing Black History Month is not the answer to achieving that. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

"What would it be replaced with?" she asked. "It definitely is still needed. I think we need to reflect, and hopefully make it evolve into what it should be. But if it's eliminated, and looking at the gaps and omissions that already exist, it would put us even farther behind in terms of trying to advance that education."

'Necessary evil'

Though many, perhaps most, educators see the value of Black History Month, there are some who see it as having certain negative effects.

Tyrone Williams, an English professor at Xavier University in Ohio, says the event is contributing to the segregation of culture.

"I think it [Black History Month] tends to re-enforce — and this is for both African-Americans and non African-Americans — it re-enforces the idea that black culture, like Latino culture, is a separate thing that is not the same thing as American culture," he said.

Actress Stacey Dash recently spoke out against Black History Month and Black Entertainment Television, saying they need to be abolished to end cultural segregation. (The Associated Press)

Williams would like to see Black History Month end, but only if the teaching of black history can change with it.

"I feel that it's a necessary evil," he said. "It'd be great if we didn't need it — it would be great if the knowledge that's often focused-on in that month were disseminated throughout the year, throughout the month and throughout the educational curriculum, and even part of our popular culture. But that, of course, is not the case."

Afua Cooper, the James R. Johnston chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said she understands the concerns about Black History Month.

"I do understand what people are saying, those who want to abolish February as Black History Month, because in many ways it has become a kind of token," she said.

Afua Cooper, James R. Johnston chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University, said Black History Month is a good time to "focus" study on a subject that needs to be taught throughout the year. (Afua Cooper)

But she notes the month is important to teaching people about black history, and the enthusiasm educators have for it is encouraging.

"Teachers call me from all over the Canada," she said. "In February: 'What can we do? What are the resources that are out there?' It provides so much awareness. And people are, you know, non-black people who are the majority of people in this society, are seeing the value of it."

Black history throughout the year

Though many advocates agree they would like to see more black history taught throughout the year, getting teachers to incorporate more black history in their curriculums can be difficult, says Henry.

"There are some teachers who think that teaching black history takes up too much time from covering the 'real' curriculum," she says. 

But some advocates argue that Black History Month itself does not have to be in opposition to teaching black history throughout the year. 

"We just need to be consistent and be persistent in calling people to action, to get more involved and to take on different roles to help people with awareness, identity, and preserving the culture," says Ontario Black History Society president Nikki Clarke. "I think it could be that the month is used to put all the parts together to propel the other months of the year."