In February, during Black History month, we educators have a solemn duty to teach students to honor the remarkable people who paved the way for those of us whom identity with the African continent as well as all people who value the contributions these pioneers made in times past and continue to make, today.
For Jamaicans, like myself, the month of February is both the time to celebrate Black History as well as Reggae Month. Jamaican students learn about renowned African Americans activists and Jamaican born heroes like Marcus Garvey, Louise Bennet and Bob Marley. Reggae music is a cornerstone of the Jamaican culture that resonates in the soul of Jamaicans, and the millions of people around the world who have adopted Jamaican culture, food and music, as their own. Due to the critical role reggae music played in Jamaican history and its’ political influence on the civil rights movements in places like South Africa and the United States, the Jamaican government partnered with other organizations in selecting activities to highlight different attributes of reggae music each day during February. They also celebrate talented reggae musical artists, like Bob Marley, the king of reggae music, who was born on February 6. In commemoration of this international music icon, there are celebrations around the world each year in remembrance of his melodic music that spoke of peace, love, and freedom for people everywhere.
In America, the educational emphasis is placed on ensuring African American students never forget what their people endured in America during slavery, and segregation so that they may enjoy today what were, not so long ago, unattainable freedoms for Black people. American schools typically celebrate Black History with a focus on the era somewhere between the 1950s and 1960s. You only need to ask any American student and they will tell you about the people they are taught, year in and year out, in their classrooms during February. They will tell you about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks and why these heroes are celebrated for the roles they played in history. While each of their contributions were undoubtedly substantial to the civil rights movement that dramatically reshaped the opportunities for Black people in America, there are countless, unnamed Black men and women, over the ages, on whose broad shoulders, each of these well-known heroes stood.
Educational Perspectives and Responsibilities
Educators must dig deeper into the lives of African people to unearth their contributions because they deserve the honor of being remembered by students and are the foundation on which all African and Caribbean history is indebted. When you ask most students and all too many educators about “What contributions did African people make before the 1950s?” or “What were they doing in the 1800s or in the 1600s?”, these questions are often followed by a long silence. Our current educational perspective on Black history engages students in the context grounded in and measured by the prevailing European and American “free labor” economic system of slavery, in which primarily enslaved Africans but also East Indian and South Asian laborers were forced to work land or construct buildings and railroads in unknown lands throughout the Caribbean, Europe and North America. The enslaved people lived through unthinkable oppression for hundreds of years. But still, their creativity could not be obliterated, that is evident in their many inventions, such as music, dance, sports, science, culinary arts that have been passed down to us, today.
Dr. King and Malcom X’s lives were violently taken by white extremists because they each stood up for the equal rights and justice for Black people in America. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white woman because she was tired of seeing the injustice and segregation. Their sacrifices must never be forgotten because it represents the turning point in American history when the efforts made all along by Black people in America were finally being realized through the enactment of more just laws and the creation of more equitable opportunities for people of color to pursue the “American dream.”
Amplifying the lives of the less renowned African and Caribbean people who played important roles in history, I believe adds immeasurable value to students’ education about Black History. When the lost stories of forgotten people who came before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, such as Frederick Douglas, Patricia Bath, and George Washington Carver are reignited in our learning, students will see the diversity of intellect, thought leadership and scientific innovation attributed to people of African descent and the impact their lives had on the world. By young people exploring in detail the history and writings of Frederick Douglas, born into slavery and whose work inspired the civil rights movements of the 1960s and beyond, they will better understand that civil rights was not a sprint but that it was a long-distance run. In the Jamaican context, there are others like: John Brown Russwurm, who co-published the first US black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal; Mary Seacole, who was known by many as a British Heroine based on her selfless work during the Crimean War (1854-56) assisting wounded British soldiers; and Robert Sutherland, who became the first black lawyer in Canada. There are many more pioneers in American and Jamaican history who have paved the way for the more recent ones. Black history education provides a very deep ocean of opportunity for educators to delve into a vast history of African and Caribbean contributions and these individuals’ lives should be highlighted for their work with as much celebrity as the pioneers schools habitually celebrate each February.
The Black History Continuum
In addition, each February should serve as a springboard for enhancing the long-term education about Black people throughout the duration of the school year and beyond. Our learning about African and Caribbean pioneers, innovators, activists and scientists deserves to be celebrated well beyond the shortest month of the year when Black history is officially celebrated. History is a continuum of events and so, the continuity is important for students to fully grasp and appreciate what people did in the past that results in where we find ourselves today. COVID-19 affords us the opportunity to take the time we need to research more about Black pioneers that can be integrated into the education of all students because Black history is not only for Black people. Black history is world history.
Writer: Dr. Dwayne Dyce / Edited by Ms. Judy Villeneuve
Dr. Dwayne Dyce serves as Chairman of Jamaica Diaspora Education Task Force