Five Ways to Teach Black History Month

Choosing a perspective to focus on teaching during Black History Month can be challenging because of the sheer breadth of topics. There are many ways you can approach teaching Black History Month, but whether you choose to teach black history through the lens of civil rights with a focus on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, or through the lens of a biologist whose work in the field of genetics dismisses race as a biological reality, the Books That Grow library offers a number of resources for teachers and students. In addition, you also have different ways to approach the material because you can level the texts in our library based on the ages of your students, ensuring that each student is getting the most out of your lesson.

Understand the African American Experience with Primary Source Documents

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 Although easily among the most challenging texts on this topic in our library, there are few substitutions for primary source documents when it comes to understanding the African American experience in a particular time and place in history. In their original forms, these pieces are best suited for older students (Grades 8–11) who have enough background knowledge to make sense of the ideas being put forth and understand the articles in their respective contexts.

Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is great place to start. To understand Dr. King’s counterarguments to the claims from white Alabama clergymen that his nonviolent protests were “untimely,” you would need to be aware that these clergymen thought the protests would disrupt the ultimate outcome of the upcoming mayoral election in Birmingham. While some of Dr. King’s philosophical ideas may be a bit too sophisticated for struggling readers, that doesn’t mean that students can’t learn from Letter from a Birmingham Jail in other ways. Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a persuasive essay, and reading it at a lower difficulty level may help students pick up on the rhetoric of King’s thesis. By analyzing the text at an appropriately challenging level, students can learn to identify King’s central idea: social change doesn’t just happen; it must be demanded by those who seek it. Once students understand this message, they can identify Dr. King’s supporting statements within the essay, and trace his line of reason and logic.

 You can apply this same strategy to Frederick Douglass’s What To The Slave Is the Fourth Of July. Though Douglass’s prose may be hard to decipher, and the subjects of his metaphors may elude students, there is still much to gain from reading this speech at a lower difficulty level—even for younger readers (Grades 5–7). For example, after reading Douglass’s account of the symbolic importance of July 4th for the American people, we come to see that he is drawing an analogy between Britain’s mistreatment of the former American colonies and America’s mistreatment of its enslaved African American community. In this way, Douglass argues for social justice—not by making a series of well-crafted arguments, but by simply exposing the United States for its hypocritical values in light of the Fourth of July holiday.

Learn about Oral Traditions and the Diaspora with Folktales from Africa

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 The Books That Grow library dares teachers to shake up their lesson plans by adding in some African and Afro-Caribbean folk tales. Both The Tortoise and the Fruit and Jabu and the Lion are folktales whose origins can be traced to South Africa, and sometimes even as far north as the Congo or Nigeria. In contrast, Anansi and the Tiger is a West African folktale made famous by the Ashanti people of Ghana. It was incorporated into the African slave cultures of the Caribbean and North American mainland during the Atlantic slave trade. These pieces are great for introducing Black History Month to younger students (Grades 1–4), and they also make a nice introduction to the African oral tradition. In many ways, these stories reflect values held in high regard by the cultures they come from, and often, the messages the stories relate are easily conveyed to younger readers.

 All three of these tales are variations on a common theme: an underdog figure uses their more subtle—but no less valuabletalents to overcome a more physically imposing adversary. In Anansi and the Tiger and Jabu and the Lion, both Anansi and the Jackal (of Jabu and the Lion) match their cunning wit against the brute strength of two ferocious felines. Although the Tiger and Lion feel assured of their victory, Anansi and the Jackal ultimately prevail. Similarly, in The Tortoise and the Fruit, Tortoise’s wisdom and experience accomplish what the raw strength of the other forest animals could not: saving the entire community from a severe drought.

 For older students,  Anansi and the Tiger is worth a deeper dive. During the Atlantic slave trade, thousands of West Africans were taken from their homes and brought to the new world, bringing their oral tradition with them. Facing abuse from masters and overseers alike, the stories of Anansi were a source of comfort for the uprooted African community. These stories not only provided examples of how an underdog could overcome almost any obstacle but also helped preserve African culture and identity in a new—and often hostile—environment. A more ambitious project for older students would be studying variations of Anansi and the Tiger and exploring how the story was altered to fit into slave culture in the United States.

Encounter Civil Rights Figures with Biographies

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 A biography is more than just a chronicle of events—it also aims to capture the subject’s experience of those events. The end result is a blend between history and character sketch. The Books That Grow library contains biographies that attempt to capture the larger-than-life figures of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Jackie Robinson. In the process, all four biographies shed light not only on the men and women they strive to bring to life but also on the social history through which they lived. Interestingly, despite tackling different primary subjects, the biographies of Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, and Dr. King overlap in their histories. In this way, these biographies provide a snapshot of the 1950s and 1960s from three different vantage points. Although each one emphasizes racial politics and the rise of the civil rights movement, they do so in different ways. While Malcolm X: The Unforgettable Fire begins by recounting the early race-related injustices endured by a young Malcolm X—injustices that would start him on his civil rights crusade—Martin Luther King, Jr.: Fearless Justice takes a novel approach. Instead of beginning with his meteoric rise to national prominence, the biography begins in media res, with Dr. King at the height of his fame as an activist and public symbol. The story opts to show Dr. King at the height of his influence before filling in his backstory in order to emphasize the contrast between his ultimate achievements and the early obstacles which held him back. In contrast to these other biographies, Harriet Tubman: The Line to Freedom takes place in a time period when the very idea of demanding civil rights for African Americans would have seemed unthinkable. In light of this, Harriet Tubman’s quest to win her freedom and her role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad—despite the ever-present threat of danger—both make her story even more compelling. This biographical piece is also valuable for the snapshot it provides into the life of a slave in nineteenth-century United States—particularly, the life of a slave in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland.

Explore the Concept of Race with Science

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 Although Black History Month is generally a time where we celebrate racial and cultural differences, this popular science piece, a Books That Grow original written by Greg Kirmser, explores the concept of race from a biological perspective. The findings? Race is not a real biological phenomenon! After providing a cursory lesson on genetics and establishing that 99.9% of our genome is universal to all humans, the piece goes on to explain how physical characteristics, like race, comprise less than 0.01% of our genetic makeup. The Truth About Race: It’s Not What It Looks Like devotes considerable attention to explaining how observable differences, like skin color, are largely determined by the environments our ancestors found themselves in. That being said, the piece doesn’t challenge the idea that perceived racial differences don’t have social significance. The book details how much of human social structures are contingent on the ability to recognize certain visual cues. In other words, recognizing people by racial features is an unconscious process designed to ease information processing by grouping people into categories. Even if some of the biology goes over students’ heads, the implications of these biological findings are at the real heart of this piece. Instead of looking at ourselves as members of a particular ethnic, racial, or national group, The Truth About Race helps open our eyes to the reality that we are all part of one group: the human race.

Examine Black History through Social Studies

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 Although music is a mode of self expression that expresses universal truths, any student of history can see that forms of music evolve, mutate, and reflect the social world around them. Books That Grow original pieces A History of Hip Hop, by Melanie Smith, and How the Greatest Flood in U.S. History Changed Music Forever, by Greg Kirmser, chronicle the way hip hop and the blues, respectively, developed in primarily African American communities in response to social and economic challenges.

A History of Hip Hop recounts how youth in poverty-stricken areas of New York City—particularly in the Bronx—began developing a subculture around graffiti art, and DJ’ing. DJ’ing, with its emphasis on breakbeats, or heavy use of percussion, encouraged musicians to add poetry or chanted lines to accompany the beat. Eventually, DJ’ing evolved into emceeing, where artists would write original lyrics to go over their beats. In other words, the book details how rap music, as we now know it, was born.

How the Greatest Flood in U.S. History Changed Music Forever  explains how the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 had far reaching effects for African Americans settled in the Mississippi Delta. Because many of these people were sharecroppers, the flood deprived them of their livelihood. In addition, the flood became a popular subject for musicians and played a large part in giving rise to the genre of music known as Delta Blues. Despite the damage wrought, many African American families saw the catastrophe in a different light: they saw an opportunity to make a fresh start. In this way, the flood also helped spur on the Great Migration, or the mass exodus of African Americans from the ravaged American South to cities in the northern and mid-western United States. The ultimate result? Well, let’s just say the Delta Blues weren’t limited to Mississippi for much longer.

Teach Black History throughout the Year

Although it’s highlighted during the month of February, black history is American history and should be celebrated as such. Trying to concentrate hundreds of years of history into one month of lessons is no easy task, so teachers, don’t feel confined to teaching these pieces during February alone! Whenever you decide to teach these pieces, let us know how your lessons go. In fact, do more than that—e-mail us here and teach us a thing or two!

Celebrating MLK Day

Learning from Writing on the Civil Rights Movement

For the past few years, some have posed the idea that because our president is African American, we are now living in a post-racial society. Events and injustices in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, Michigan, and Florida—frankly all over the US—illustrate that we are not. In response to these injustices, people have been protesting. Some of the protests have been well organized, peaceful, and have sent positive messages. Other protests have quickly unraveled and lost any sense of organization. In these cases, the protests became little more than a thinly veiled excuse to loot, cause destruction, and even become violent. There is no doubt that discourse is necessary, and the classroom is a great place to start talking and sharing ideas.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings, philosophies, and personal history have always been upheld as tenants and guidelines for creating change against adversity, and today is no exception. While the writings of Malcolm X have not been as widely embraced, his work offers a valuable and historical counterpoint to Dr. King’s. Malcolm X’s influence on the civil rights movement should be taught and understood in context. To help begin the conversation, Books That Grow offers your class Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail; Fearless Justice, an autobiography of Dr. King; and Malcolm X: The Unforgettable Fire.

Dr. King’s Philosophy

Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail resonates now more than ever. From an early age, children need to be taught to think critically and understand that justice and the law don’t always coincide. Dr. King’s writing and philosophy prescribe proactive ways to address and correct these injustices and caution against dangerous ways of addressing and correcting injustices. In Letter, Dr. King discusses what makes his philosophy of non-violent protest so effective: it draws attention to injustice, without perpetuating a vicious cycle of violence. More than that, Dr. King’s writing encourages tolerance of other views and opens up a dialogue between parties, instead of promoting a one-sided monologue of violence and destruction.

Introducing Dr. King’s Ideas to Students

Depending on the age of the reader, there are different ways to introduce Dr. King’s ideas to students. For older high school students, Letter From a Birmingham Jail is a perfect introductory text to Dr. King. In many ways, it is the distillation of his philosophical beliefs, which were informed by his undergraduate study of sociology and his graduate study of theology. For younger readers, Dr. King’s penetrating insights about systemic injustice may be a bit daunting, however, these readers can still benefit from Dr. King’s autobiography, Fearless Justice. Although this piece deals less explicitly with the realm of ideas, it provides concrete examples of racial hardships faced by Dr. King that are bound to resonate with younger students and force them to ask higher-order questions concerning race relations.

Providing Guidance to Effect Change

Having studied the works of Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Henry David Thoreau, Dr. King arrived at the unwavering conviction—which he expresses in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail—that tactical non-violence was both a balm for an oppressed people and an effective way to bring formerly rationalized injustices to the forefront of the social and political landscape. Letter provided civil rights activists with the guidance and philosophical framework to work to make necessary changes, and it attracted media attention and empathy across the United States and around the world.

Malcolm X’s Philosophy

Much of Malcolm X’s leadership was in philosophical opposition to Dr. King’s. Malcolm X justified violence and popularized the phrase “by any means necessary.” He advocated for both the establishment of a separate black community (rather than integration) and the use of violence in self-defense (rather than non-violence). In other words, Malcolm X was not a vigilante, and he didn’t advocate for the random or planned use of violence. He believed people should protect themselves and their rights.

Teaching Malcolm X’s Ideas in Context

For interested teachers, comparing the ideological beliefs of Dr. King and Malcolm X is an easy way to help students understand the various sub-movements that comprise the civil rights movement. Although it’s a simplification of history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often grouped into the more moderate camp, who sought to change the status quo through non-violent protest and legislative change, while Malcolm X is often grouped into the more militant camp, best represented by groups like The Nation of Islam and The Black Panthers. A quick and easy activity for teachers is to divide the class into two groups and have each one do collaborative presentations about the rationale behind Dr. King and Malcolm X’s unique approach to spearheading civil rights issues. Although violence is rarely justified, taking Malcolm X’s perspective is also a lesson in empathy and can help students understand the sense of frustration that makes violence seem like a viable alternative when compared with dilatory social change.

Additional Teaching Supplements from Books That Grow

Don’t miss out on Books That Grow’s differentiated versions of Letter From a Birmingham Jail and Malcolm X: The Unforgettable Fire! There is a teaching guide available for Letter, and one for Malcolm X will be ready soon. We’d love to hear about how you use these texts and the discussions they are sure to inspire with your students. Please let us know by e-mailing us.