By Lisa Paciulli, Department of Biological Sciences
Black History Month (also known as African American History Month) first began in 1926 with a one-week celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s (February 12) and Frederick Douglass’s (February 20) birthdays. What started as a culmination of Carter G. Woodson’s ten years of writing The Journal of African American History (formerly the Journal of Negro History) would later become an academic journal detailing African American history and life, as well as morph into the annual Black History Month.
Black History Month is one way to set time aside to focus on and to celebrate the history, challenges, successes, and uniqueness of the African diaspora. In the United States, February is Black History Month, and many faculty want to do something to acknowledge and highlight the contributions of Black and African Americans in shaping American culture and life. The question is though, how do we honor Black History Month while avoiding the many pitfalls that come with it? First, who gets saddled with the heavy lifting of planning appropriate Black History Month events – Black, white, or all people? Second, how do we not allow Black History Month celebrations to turn into performative activism events (King 2021) or a light, surface-level type of activism often viewed as increasing one’s own social capital instead of a true devotion to and deep feeling for the cause? In other words, how do we not become “slacktivists?”
Another issue is that trying to squeeze-in all of Black history into a single month – and the shortest of all months at that – can be viewed as tokenizing (King 1962), or merely acknowledging that there is an issue without really digging deeper and trying to solve it. In addition, how do we “celebrate” a month when in the past year, hundreds of thousands of people have died from COVID-19, and the long-standing inequities of race, ethnicity, and income have reared their ugly heads leading to disproportionately higher illness and death rates for Black Americans? Moreover, how can we “celebrate” anything, let alone Black History month, while we are still mourning the senseless losses of George, Brianna, and countless others? Thinking about all of this can lead one into a state of catatonia and inaction.
Considering all of the pitfalls, what can white faculty do to center, elevate, and support Black scientists and students in an appropriate manner in our classrooms always and in all ways, and especially during Black History Month? One small way is to acknowledge the hardships Black and African Americans have faced and overcome to get to where they are now – namely, to NC State University. Highlighting individual students and their many challenges on campus websites seems like one nice way to do this. However, spotlighting students can also be viewed as perfunctory and symbolic, i.e., tokenizing.
White and all faculty can learn more about the persistent and systematic exclusion and inequity that has always existed in higher education, science, and in every corner of The Academy and brick of the Ivory Tower, and work to reduce this. Creating more inclusive classroom environments – not just during Black History Month – but all of the time – helps, too.
At the very real risk of being performative, tokenizing, and/or downright wrong, some faculty share with students carefully curated websites, activities, and/or assignments that feature stories of counter-stereotypical scientists, many of whom are People of Color. For example, The Scientist Spotlights Initiative endeavors to empower educators to implement inclusive curricula. Utilizing materials and resources from The Scientist Spotlights Initiative may help many non-white, non-male, non-wealthy students better see themselves in science. Another idea is to have students do an assignment for which they research non-stereotypical people in a course topic and create an educational infographic, Flipgrid, Moodle forum post, etc. to share with the class. Although these are such small things to do, they are at least a way to mark the occasion and to create a more inclusive classroom environment.
- King, I. (2021) Black History Month: Celebration or performance? The Strand, 63(8).
- King, ML. (1962) The case against Tokenism. The New York Times Magazine, p. 164, August 5.