Black History Month is celebrated during the month of February when, albeit very commercialized, our nation is engrossed with themes of love. While consumerism focuses on romantic love, students exchange Valentine’s Day cards with words of affirmation and friendly affection to one another, often adorned with a sweet treat. Children in Christian schools and Christian families are reminded that the Bible calls us to “love one another, for love comes from God” (1 John 4:7), that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), and that “a friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17). Interestingly enough, these themes can be found within our celebration of Black History Month, as well.
We know that the month of February was chosen to honor two men—one African American and one white—as leaders in the abolitionist movement. The birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are thought to coincide in the second week of February. Abraham Lincoln was significant in the emancipation of slaves, and Douglass was a prominent trailblazer in the fight to end slavery.
However, there are a lot of ways that we can incorporate themes of love and affection into our conversation around Black History Month, especially because the Bible often ties love and unity together in Scripture. Love propels us towards unity. But unity doesn’t mean uniformity; it doesn’t mean sameness. Christian unity is the outcome of God gathering people of differing ethnicities, backgrounds, and social classes into one family (or body) by faith in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27; Galatians 3:26–28). As such, we can celebrate, in love, the contributions of Black Americans on culture and society as fellow image bearers and children of God. Biblical unity will not often be smooth or simple. It will mandate that we, empowered by the Holy Spirit, actively “put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Colossians 3:14).
Because of technology, we have far more access to noteworthy facts about Black History than we had in the past. To steward this information well, there are important lessons that parents can impart to their children, and educators can teach their students as they highlight and affirm Black History Month.
Celebrate the testimony, not the trauma.
Ben Lindsay, CEO and Founder of Power the Fight, a charity that empowers communities to end youth violence, recently explained to me why he refers to Black History Month as “Black Trauma Month.” When he first mentioned the phrase Black Trauma Month, I immediately knew what he meant and yet was still intrigued enough to follow it up with several questions. In short, he narrated a scenario that I have encountered many times—an emphasis on slavery, the Civil War, and numerous historical, racial and systemic injustices in our world as the focal point of lessons, projects, and activities for Black History Month. Ben works with youth daily, and he underscored the impact that it has on young Black people to have a global conversation that centers on historical trauma for Black Americans. While I was well-acquainted with the examples he gave, the way which he articulated it forced me to reflect. I never considered the impact in such sobering terms—trauma.
So I began to think about how we—educators and parents—can better teach, celebrate, and lift up Black History Month without causing harm or trauma to Black people, who are often the subject of the conversation. In other words, how can we celebrate the testimony of endurance and resilience, not the trauma of racial injustice during the one month meant to highlight Black contributions in history?
Remember that Black History does not begin with American slavery.
It’s imperative that we hold up the dignity and breadth of heritage of Black Americans by not reducing their history to their enslavement. Well before the rise of European imperialism, the peoples of Africa had their own empires and political systems. When we recognize their humanity, we can easily see that to start with American slavery is to erase the socio-historical contexts that preceded the horrors of slavery. We need to teach our children that black descendants were humans, not slaves. These Africans were kidnapped and later enslaved but that was not their identity. More on this in a bit.
Focus on more than Martin and Malcom.
Our culture rightly uplifts the work of the incomparable Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a Baptist minister, activist and the most prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He was also the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Some will also highlight Malcom X, although typically as a converse to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as another human rights activist who was a prominent figure during the civil rights movement. While many see MLK, Jr. and Malcom X as antithetical to one another, for better or for worse, most people are familiar with these two names. When we only highlight civil rights activists during Black History Month, we are again centering injustices and trauma for our students.
Please do not misunderstand me, I believe it is important to teach this history. We learn from history by studying it, however uncomfortable it may be. But, for Black History Month, we can celebrate the accomplishments of Black Americans. We can celebrate the innovation, creativity, ingenuity and inspiration of those who have gone before us. We can commemorate the often-overlooked contributions of Black people in this country and the systemic hurdles they had to jump over in order to build and create them. And we can use this opportunity to empower young Black children to pursue their dreams with excellence despite adversity.
Correctly identify Identity.
Earlier, I mentioned that we need to teach our children that Black descendants were humans, not slaves. This is an important shift in language that has a significant impact on the hearer. Our identity is core to who we are. It is for this reason that the Bible emphasizes our identity in Christ (Ephesians 1:5; 1 Peter 2:9). While there are many things that make up our identity—race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc.—the most important one is that we are “children of God” and “joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17). Knowing that identity is shaping and core to who we are, our language around identity needs to have a great deal of intentionality, which is why we use the word “enslaved” instead of “slave.” To refer to someone as a slave is to make it their identity, instead of what happened to them. They were not slaves. They were mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. They were bankers, farmers, chefs, poets, pastors, and more—who were then kidnapped and enslaved. When enslaved Africans are described as slaves instead of as humans, the evils they suffered are diminished.
Empower a new generation of shalomists.
Joel Gaines, Head of School at The City School in Philadelphia, often teaches and preaches on the topic of shalom. He has coined the word “shalomist” when referring to those who seek the shalom of the city. Jeremiah 27:9 says, “Seek the shalom of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in the shalom of it shall you have shalom.” By encouraging our youth to be agents of shalom, we are inspiring them to make a difference in the world.
Black History Month is a great opportunity to empower all students! By recognizing the contributions of Black Americans in American history we tell the truth of the past, demonstrate the power of representation, and encourage allyship!
Civil rights leader Ella Baker embodied the motto: “Lift as you climb!” Our young people today can actively pursue shalom in the “city” God has placed them by lifting up the voices, experiences, and work of Black Americans, while they themselves also climb, because our end goal is the flourishing of all. We can recognize the barriers that Black Americans had to overcome in the past while also inspiring students of today to be light in the darkness (Matt. 5:13-16), to be shalomists that seek the shalom of the city (Jeremiah 27:9), and to amplify the voice of the voiceless (Proverbs 31:8-9), in turn creating a world where all God’s children can flourish for His glory!