Reflections on Black History Month

I’ll be honest; I have mixed feelings about Black History Month.  On the one hand, our country owes Black Americans this recognition because we have done such a poor job of including anyone who isn’t white in the racial narrative we tell, whether it’s through our school curricula, the books we publish, or media as a whole. On the other hand, I’m sure we’ve all heard some version of “I guess it’s that time of year again,” when the Black History Month displays go up. (Thank you, teenagers, for your blithe cynicism.) 

Titles for Black History Month.

I worry that having these designated months potentially sends the message that the entire history of a group of people can fit into one month. I also think there is the danger of feeling that we are checking the diversity box because we celebrate everyone’s “month.” That being said, if we are striving to have an inclusive library year-round, through every book order, every display, every event, and every program, then these special months are just more opportunities to create that inclusive space. So every year in February, our library passionately celebrates, knowing that we are also representing hard the other eleven months. 

Silhouette of an african-american person painted on paper.

I work in an independent school library that serves a predominantly white population of 6th-12th grade students. While I feel very strongly that it is crucial for our students of color to see themselves represented in our programming and collection, I feel just as strongly that the white students we serve need to see this representation as well. I want to encourage as much empathy and awareness as I can, and I also don’t want any of our students to be swaddled in a cocoon of whiteness before they go off into a much more diverse world after graduation. 

As part of our Black History Month programming, our library participates in the NCTE African American Read-In. For the past four years, we’ve picked one day during Black History Month to reserve the first floor of our two-story library for reading books, shorts stories, poems, magazines, etc… written by Black American authors.  We pull out Black American #OwnVoices fiction and nonfiction and display it on top of all of our shelves, on our end caps, and as our outward-facing books at the end of shelf rows. On the day of the Read-In we also offer snacks (the library is usually a no food zone, so this is big), play music on an actual record player (from Motown to Jazz to Jimi Hendrix to Lauryn Hill), and enjoy a wonderful day of cozy reading.  We invite teachers to bring their classes and also are open for anyone – adult or student – to drop in when they have time. If a teacher’s class can’t make it on the actual day of the Read-In, we offer to schedule a time for them to come another day during the week.  

BHM titles

In addition to the Read-In event, we try to create interesting displays for the month each year. Last year’s display was my favorite by far, mainly because we got our high school’s Art Club and Multicultural Alliance involved in the process. Together, we created large-scale Black faces to hang on the front and side windows of the library.  On the backs of the faces, we wrote poems by Black Americans. (Credit to this tweet for the inspiration for this idea.) We displayed these again this year.

I wanted to make our displays this year feel more like a celebration of Black Present and Future, so I didn’t use the word History anywhere. I decided to focus our front display on current young adult and middle grades authors.  Using Canva, I created small posters with the picture of each author, surrounded by their books. I put books on display at the front of the library that were highlighted in the posters.

I also die-cut N.K. Jemisin’s book title, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, and put that up along our back wall, with two more faces. This has sparked a few interesting conversations with middle school students, who want to know why they’ve never heard of Black Future Month.

Framed images of posters celebrating Black History Month.

Celebrate Black Voices is written on a window inside the library.

We are trying some new programming this year and hosting lunch-time book discussions two days before the Read-In (with desserts provided). In the middle school, we are going to watch video clips of current Black authors reading their works and discuss them. In the high school, we are having a discussion of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which will include watching clips of the movie and part of this video of Tupac, responding to an accusation that his music incited violence against a police officer.  We are crossing our fingers for participation!

Silhouette of an african-american person painted on paper.

I know I started this post with my misgivings about Black History Month, but I want to end it with why I love this month so much. Any time I start to feel cynicism creep in, when I feel that change isn’t happening fast enough and we’re spinning our wheels, I remember a comment from a student that will always stick with me. She came in on the day of the Read-In, and as she looked around at all the books written by Black authors, she said, “I wish my mom were here.  This is our idea of heaven.” 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go pull some books.  

Disclaimer: I focused on racial diversity in this post because it’s about Black History Month and it gets linguistically awkward to list every potential type of diversity. I believe that the same assertions I made about racial diversity apply for all the ways in which people can be marginalized or othered because of a part of their identity. 

 

Whitney Etchison currently lives in Maryland and is in her tenth year as a school librarian. The best part of her job is readers advisory, although teaching research skills is pretty cool too. She loves horror novels but can’t watch scary movies.

How to Have the Same Old, Same Old Black History Month

Happy February! If you have no interest in reigniting your observance of Black History Month, read on for tips on how to continue doing the same tired thing every year.

1. Definitely put together a display for Black History Month and then never again feature black authors or stories at any other time throughout the year.
While Black History Month is a wonderful time to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to literature, history, politics, and culture, sometimes it’s used as a crutch to avoid promoting these individuals and these stories for the rest of the year. And while booktalking and displaying people by all races and ethnicities is something to be done year-round, ask yourself if you are integrating these books into general displays or if your habit is to always mention that an author or character is black, instead of focusing on the vampire romance or the great writing or the hilarious flying panda bear, you’re not going to get the circulation you want. And you’re being unfair to the book. White authors are recognized for their stories, not their identities. Give that same courtesy to everyone else. Continue reading