I was never taught about Queen Hatshepsut in school. I do not recall reading about Marcus Garvey or Fred Hampton for homework. Black Wall Street was never mentioned. Every February, however, there were plenty of stories about “the slaves” and Martin Luther King Jr. and nonviolence. I learned of Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus and the lunch counter sit-ins and the March on Washington. They might have mentioned Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass while we had a Black History Month assembly. Standard American suburban education. For 28 or 29 days each year, we were the focus, and then back to basics.
Fast forward through college and into adulthood where I found myself in Harlem in the 90’s, twenty-something and a “conscious” sister. We said we were “conscious” before everyone discovered the term “woke,” coincidentally coined by my friend’s father, the late William Melvin Kelley in his 1962 essay, “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” (True story) I was now an African dancer who wore long locs and headwraps; a designer and creative entrepreneur, and my husband, an entrepreneur who had studied History and African Studies at Syracuse U, where we met. We were strict vegans who read labels and ate at Rastafarian (vegan) spots on the regular.
The year Prince had promised would be one big party, 1999, found me married and giving birth to my first-born, my daughter. My second child, a son, was born almost three years later and there we were, a whole African-American family of four. Considering ourselves well-read and very conscious Black activists who had seen our share of grassroots organizing, marching and participating in all of the cultural richness of NYC, of course we wanted to immerse our babies in black history and culture. Not just in February.
During the month designated for the celebration of Black History and culture, and founded by Carter G. Woodson, we understood that we were not embracing blackness simply because the calendar told us so. However, we would look for any and every television program, movie and special during February that highlighted the black experience, to watch with our little people. From documentaries to musicals, we enjoyed seeing the faces of our diverse people and learning more so we could discuss with them. Letting them know that they were a part of something bigger than slavery in America – part of a great legacy of ancestral knowledge and wisdom that led to building original civilizations and empires, was so important for their self-esteem.
Sharing music was also important and it was always an opportunity for our children to learn about great Black musicians and singers like Stevie Wonder, Donna Summers, Cassandra WIlson, Miles Davis, Sam Cooke, Bob Marley, Prince and so many more. We also enjoyed African singers like Ismael Lo and Angelique Kidjo, as well as Brazilian music, which we danced to with joy.
We had a calendar hanging on the wall all year that highlighted Black Kings and Queens. From this calendar the children could learn of the accomplishments of Mansa Musa of Mali, Queen Sheba and Queen Hatshepsut. Deep and ancient stories of greatness that show we come from a place of pride, not shame. Books were and still are everywhere in our home. Adding children’s books to all of our books from college meant that we were never without something to read to our babies. Reading was super important at home and in their elementary school, Central Park East II, where they were required from Pre-K to 5th grade to keep a daily reading log. Some of our favorite stories about or by Black people were:
- Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale by John Steptoe
- Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger
- Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mays by Peter Mandel
- Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen
- Rosa by Nikki Giovanni
- The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles
- I Love My Hair by Natasha Tarpley
- Ben’s Trumpet by Rachel Isadora
- March (trilogy) by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
- Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale by Verna Aardema
- Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine
We cannot fit all of our experiences into one month. I encourage Black families and any family who wants to learn about our history and culture to use the following tips:
- Purchase books by Black authors and books about Black people and fictional characters.
- Read aloud with your children so they learn and explore Black stories.
- Discuss Black history and current events on a regular basis.
- Have your littles speak with the elders in your family about their lives and experiences.
- Share diverse Black music with your children from birth (in the womb too).
- Have a dance party with your children where you teach them your favorite dance rooted in Black culture.
- Watch documentaries about the Black experience (art, dance, history, religion, food, activism, science, tech).
- Watch tv shows and movies that amplify positive Black images.
- Plan a trip to a museum that has exhibits of African, Caribbean and African American art and history.
- Discuss Black people’s contributions to building America.
- Plan a trip to DC and learn about Benjamin Banneker, and (museum architects) David Adjaye and Philip Freelon.
- Plan a trip to a Black community like the Gullah Geechee Corridor in SC, Greenwood/Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, Sweet Auburn District in Atlanta to explore our diverse culture.
- Plan an international trip to Africa or the Caribbean to expand your family’s perspective of the African diasporic experience.
- Dine at a Black-owned restaurant (or order in to be Covid safe).
- Seek out Black-owned brands and purchase their clothing, jewelry, art, and products.
I hope you use these tips to enrich and educate your young ones during Black History Month and all year long!