Bringing Black History to Life, Every Day

by | 02.23.22

Dowan McNair Lee is a teacher in Washington D.C.. Follow her on Twitter @dmaclee.

When it comes to celebrating Black History Month, it can be easy for us to fall back on talking about the same few heroes. Of course we want to teach and honor the work of well-known civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass, but when we focus only on figures who can feel larger than life to our students, we risk overlooking phenomenal history-makers who are alive and well right now. 

Students often learn that the history of Blackness in this country begins with slavery, and they don’t always learn the full richness of what Blackness means. As my students’ Black teacher, I am the descendant of not just enslaved Africans but pool sharks and maids and hair dressers and artists and corner boys. And all of those people have made our communities work – not just our most celebrated politicians and leaders. I want to honor all of our history in its fullness.

I want to use Black History Month as an opportunity to introduce students to people and movements that make them think about Black history in a joyful way, and that’s why I turn to the arts. I’ve noticed that when my Black students say they want to pursue a field in STEM, they’re applauded – as they should be. But when students say they want to be artists or designers, they don’t always get that same recognition and push. I want to ensure that, no matter what path calls to them, they receive the affirmation they need to pursue it – and can discover role models who look like them.

Below, I’ll share five starting points you might draw on for bringing Black arts and culture into your curriculum, with a focus on centering and learning from Black joy – during Black History Month and all year:

1. Choreography and dance. One week last year, my students and I focused on Black dance, dancers and choreographers. I love the famous routine by the Nicholas Brothers in “Stormy Weather.” It’s an absolutely dazzling display of acrobatic skill and intricate tap dancing – and it was filmed in one flawless take in 1943. Despite it being an “old” film, and despite watching it at home during lockdown, my students were totally engaged with this sequence. They filled up the chat with comments like: “You see that? You see what they did?” and “This is everything, Mrs. McNair–Lee, thank you!” 


2.  Film and television. ​​My students and I also looked at the legacy of Spike Lee. While many of his films aren’t appropriate for screening in school, we looked at some clips and explored his influence in TV and film, so my students could see that many of the actors and actresses that were featured in Spike Lee’s earlier films went on to have jobs and careers outside of those films – including actors my students are very familiar with who moved on from “School Daze.” I want them to see that those stars didn’t just hatch from somewhere, they found a home because of this living filmmaker who made it possible for these young people to find work in Hollywood.

3. Visual art. Learning about Black visual artists last year, we zoomed in on the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Amy Sherald. For many students, Basquiat is their first example of a Black painter who had such a tremendous impact. By spending time with Amy Sherald’s work as well, I was able to encourage my students to look at living artists. Sherald is the artist who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait – and that provided a lot of rich ground for discussion. Because Sherald is my daughter’s favorite living artist, and my daughter is an artist herself, this also gave me the opportunity to bring something personal into the lesson. I shared my daughter’s fourth grade presentation on Sherald with my eighth grade students, and that allowed students to see this cycle of influence in real time – an artist of one generation inspiring another, with both of them gaining the potential to make an even bigger impact on art, taste and culture. 

4. Fashion. Something I want to do more this year is highlight models and designers who have had an influence in Black fashion. I want to introduce students to folks like Virgil Abloh who just passed away and also designers that might not be as prominent. There’s Stephen Jones, the Black milliner who creates high fashion hats. There was Ann Lowe, the Black woman who created Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. I want students to understand that the fashion they hold dear now has always been shaped by Black people. A lot of the style that we see on runways and on magazine covers originated with Black people on street corners and in clubs in Brooklyn or D.C. or Miami, and I want my students to see that. Fashion also offers a lens through which to explore the cyclical nature of history. A lot of what kids are wearing now looks like what I was wearing in 1994. I want them to see that what’s fly now was fly then and show them, “Yes, your parents were fly.” 

5. Music. Music is something that I always love to bring into my lessons. Even when a Black History Month lesson is provided for the whole school, I’ll take a little time to scour YouTube for songs that relate to the theme. Last year, I really honed in on Black anthems like “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and other anthems that are important in the Black community. I’d play the song and ask students: “What do you feel when you hear this?” Often those songs become a link to a story about my own life or a story my students know from history. 

Invite students to add their voices. 

As part of this learning and reflection, I also invite my students to write letters to their younger selves. When they write these letters, I remind them to write as if they are part of Black history. I tell them: You are a history maker now. What would you tell your younger self as a history maker? What lessons have you learned? What observations do you have? What are your goals and dreams for the future, as a history maker in the making?

Embrace an inquiry stance and learn together. 

As I build these conversations into my curriculum, I strive to put down the pressure of being an expert. Instead, I think about what I love and what I’m curious about and use that to connect with my students and help them connect to the materials, so we are all learning together. 

For educators who might be struggling with how to celebrate Black history year-round, I want to remind you: You don’t have to look far for ideas, because Black history is ever-present. Black history is right here and right now and there are so many conversations and learning opportunities just waiting to be had. It’s all about making those links between what we have in our curriculum to what we’re seeing in our world – and what we’re seeing in one another. Some of those conversations might not feel celebratory, but they’re still so important and valuable. And even when they’re difficult, there’s still space to honor greatness and uplift students’ cultures. 

I strongly encourage you to pursue something that could be nourishing for you and your interests. I want to encourage educators of all races to engage Black History Month from that place of humility and genuineness, but I especially want to encourage Black educators to take the opportunity to nourish themselves in this process too. So if you love something about our history and culture but you haven’t had the hours to explore it, try sharing it with your students and exploring it together. And I’m sure you’ll support building stronger relationships with your students in the process.

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