Resources to Support African American Heritage Year-round

Students show off the nominees in our first annual mock Coretta Scott King award. Our 16 nominees were read by over 600 students in grades PreK-5 in our Maryland elementary school.
Portrait of African-American historian Carter Godwin Woodson as a young man. Courtesy of the New River Gorge National River website, National Park Service, Department of the Interior, United States Government.
Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950)

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History launched the first Negro History Week. In the decades that followed, schools and universities across the country turned the week into a month-long celebration, and in 1976, President Ford decreed Black History Month a national observance. In the years since, Black History Month has become controversial, with some believing that we are causing more harm than good by limiting our study of African American heritage to a single month. Rather, our quest for knowledge and for learning from new and unfamiliar voices should be ongoing and throughout the year.

Understandably, this is going to look different from one educator to the next and from school to school. This might be the first February you have ever recognized Black History Month in your classroom, library or school, and so taking these first steps will be motivating and meaningful. Maybe you’ve been looking to expand your focus on celebrating the lives and accomplishments of other people of color, but haven’t felt like you’ve had the resources to do so previously. I’ve attempted to gather as many resources as possible in this month’s post in hopes that you can use these tools to reflect on your own journey, the needs of your students, and the values of your instructional practice, as well as to help every student see themselves in their history and in their education.

While I draft this post, I am midway through a mock Corretta Scott King Award (CSK) project with my K–5 students. Our 600+ students are considering the illustrations of 16 different picture books with African American illustrators published in 2017 in order to award a medal and honors to their favorite titles. We’re using awards criteria used by the Coretta Scott King Award committee, but we are displaying the results on a hallway bulletin board bracket competition. As I read more titles to my classes and as they come closer to selecting their top choices, the board fills up until we are down to two books facing off. The top choice will receive our medal and the second will receive an honor. I chose this project because I felt like it would be of greater value to the diverse population of students; they can see themselves in both the characters of the books we’re considering for our award, and also in the authors and illustrators. I deliberately chose to work on this project in December in order to be ahead of the ALA Youth Media Awards (announced  on Monday, February 12th) and to work outside of Black History Month — though I do really love that our conversations and celebrations over these 16 books will carry us all the way into February! You can see our nominees and track our progress by visiting matthewcwinner.com/blog/tag/CSK.

The resources below are organized into groups sharing a common theme or focus. Preview all resources first before sharing with children. While none of these resources are explicit or graphic in nature, some of the links contain information that may not be appropriate for all young learners. If there are resources you use or have recently come across, I encourage you to share them in the comments below.

Why Is February Black History Month?

  • History.com has curated a collection of videos for Black History Month, including “The Origins of Black History Month.” The site also contains articles, speeches and pictures of interest for Black History Month, available throughout the year.
  • Time’s article entitled “This is How February Became Black History Month” provides a detailed account of the events leading to Black History Month.
  • Mental Floss has a more succinct description of the origin of Black History Month in an article entitled “Why Was February Chosen for Black History Month?
  • Wikipedia’s article on the origins of Black History Month features photos of Carter G. Woodson and of the Black United Students first Black culture center, as well as information about Black History Month celebrations in the United Kingdom and Canada, along with criticisms of the celebration in the United States. A number of helpful links are also provided, including other history or heritage months celebrated in the United States.

Celebrating Black History Month

And in the library or classroom it may be particularly timely to share the works of Virginia Hamilton and Leo Dillon. Virginia Hamilton was the first African American to ever be awarded the Newbery medal, which she received for M. C. Higgins, The Great in 1974. Leo Dillon was the first African American to ever be awarded the Caldecott Medal, which he received with his wife, Diane, for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears in 1976 and for Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions in 1977. School Library Journal wrote a beautiful piece on Dillon after his death in 2012.

African American Heritage Year-round

And for those looking to highlight the life and accomplishments of an individual from the African American community each day, sites like BlackHistoryDaily.com and BlackFacts.com provide succinct and often photo-illustrated accounts of notable births, deaths and accomplishments throughout African American history and associated with any selected day in history. And BlackHistorySalute.com provides biographies of hundreds of individuals, organized in categories including writers, inventors, politicians, athletics and education.

How To Eat an Elephant

If you’re like me, staring down a list of so many resources can be instantly overwhelming. Take a step back and chose one small way you’re going to make an impact with your students for Black History Month and beyond. Taking on too much at once can be hazardous, so I find it’s always best to stick to this one bit of simple advice shared with me when I was first starting teaching: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Start small. Be intentional. And know that your choices are making a difference in the lives of your students.

Do you have other resources you plan to use in your observance of Black History Month? Are there read alouds you’ve recently discovered or books you share year after year? Be sure to let us know in the comments below or by connecting with us on Twitter at @MatthewWinner and @demco. We’d love to cheer you on as you support your students in learning about and celebrating African American Heritage in February and throughout the year!

Author

Matthew Winner

Matthew Winner

Library Media Specialist and Host of The Children’s Book Podcast
Matthew Winner is an elementary school librarian in Howard County, Maryland. He is the host of The Children's Book Podcast (formerly All The Wonders), a weekly podcast featuring insightful and sincere interviews with authors, illustrators and everyone involved in taking a book from drawing board to bookshelf. He is the author of Asha Went Walking, a webcomic for young readers illustrated by Lorian Tu-Dean, about a girl, her arctic fox companion and her magic bag. In 2013, Matthew was named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker and was invited to the White House as part of the Champions of Change program. Visit Matthew online at www.matthewcwinner.com/blog or on Twitter at @MatthewWinner.