Opinion: Have we outgrown Black History Month?
By Laura Mitchell
Black History Month first occurred in 1970. The annual, month-long celebration has served as an opportunity to educate all Americans about the contributions made by African Americans in fields as varied as science, mathematics, literature, politics and the arts. It has been a catalyst to expand our nation's collective narrative about the role African Americans have played in our history.
But half a century later, the youth of today are demanding more of us.
African Americans have been a part of American history for more than four centuries, since well before our nation was founded. Rightfully, the next generation is asking us bold questions: If African American history is American history, why should it stand separate and apart? And why should it only be acknowledged once a year?
And indeed, why should it?
During the social unrest of last summer, African American students within Cincinnati Public Schools created an important forum, CPS Students Speak Up and Speak Out. Knowing that schools have a critical role in leading our community through change, the students submitted a list of demands to the CPS administration.
One of the demands makes clear that our students yearn to know more about the African American scientists, mathematicians and artists who have come before us.
"We demand a non-filtered, updated and accurate history course required for all students. We are not being taught our history. If Black history is being acknowledged, it is only for Black History Month which lasts for 28 days. We are not being prepared for life without the inclusion of Black stories in school," the students wrote in their letter.
This request has challenged us to consider how the accomplishments, experiences and perspectives of African Americans can be taught within all disciplines, all year long.
CPS is reviewing our curriculum districtwide and suggesting relevant course additions. One group in particular, the CPS Social Studies Council, is comprised of teachers, students, parents, administrators and college professors of African American history and social studies. It is conducting a K-12, unit-by-unit examination of the social studies curriculum, with revisions to be adopted for the 2021-2022 academic year.
However, the diminishment of the African American experience expands beyond the confines of our collective history. True equity will only be achieved when we are able to celebrate and acknowledge the unique experience of African Americans without holding those experiences as separate, and therefore, as less than.
In that spirit, the students' demands expand beyond curriculum to include development of a dedicated peer group to discuss the issues faced by African American students, a stronger relationship between students and the Cincinnati Police Department, active support of students who want to become more civically engaged, and creation of a student-led public rally.
Perhaps one of the most meaningful steps we have taken as an organization is the creation of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. This leadership office was created to provide students a place to discuss issues they face in their schools and implement solutions.
CPS is also facilitating conversations with the Cincinnati Police Department. Students and representatives of the police department have met multiple times to lay the foundation for change and build a better rapport, one based on respect, not stereotypes, between African American students and Cincinnati police officers.
Civic engagement was a topic engaged in heavily last fall. Representatives of the city of Cincinnati, Urban League of Young Professionals and the Avondale Community Council addressed the students. In addition, CPS partnered with the Greater Cincinnati Voters Collaborative to provide students with voter education materials to support the curriculum.
And, our students are actively planning a rally on Feb. 25. We hope our community will virtually support this effort.
It has been said that history creates a bridge that eradicates difference and enables understanding. But in order for that to be true, the history and experiences of all peoples must be both acknowledged and fully woven into the fabric of our culture.
What the next generation is asking of us may not always feel comfortable. But they are necessary steps to building the fully inclusive and equitable community of the future. I am proud of our CPS students for pushing us to be bold and, importantly, hopeful.
Laura Mitchell is superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools
You can also read this article at Cincinnati.com. It will also be in Sunday's newspaper.