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How Black Lives Matter Is Changing What Students Learn During Black History Month

“Whenever there’s a tragedy in black America, there’s always been an uptick of black history courses."

Freshman year can make anyone feel lost, but Seattle teen Janelle Gary felt especially lost when she entered high school in 2015. At home, she watched a wave of gentrification drive change in the historically black Central District neighborhood, and at school, where she was one of the few students of color in an honors history class, she felt as if black perspectives were also in the minority.

Looking back at that time, as now-18-year-old freshman at Central Washington University, she feels her teacher was “tip-toeing” around hard race-related questions about history. But things were different in her Ethnic Studies class, where her teacher Jesse Hagopian remembered what it was like to be the only black kid in a class.

That memory — and the lasting impact of a college class that looked at race head-on — is part of the reason why Hagopian, 41, and other educators inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement organized a national Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. What started locally in Seattle in 2016, inspired by a federal investigation into the higher rate of suspensions of black students compared to their white peers, has grown into a nationwide organizing effort.

In 2020, for the second year in a row, teachers — including in the country’s three largest school districts, in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago — will wear “Black Lives Matter” shirts to school as they teach lessons on black history and race issues from Feb. 3 to Feb. 7. The organizers are also calling for Black History and Ethnic Studies to be a graduation requirement in K-12 schools.

Theirs is not a new call to action. They are driven by the same feeling James Baldwin described in 1963: “I began to be bugged by the teaching of American history, because it seemed that history had been taught without cognizance of my presence.” It is also the same feeling that in 1926 drove Carter G. Woodson, who is known as “the Father of Black History,” to urge educators to set aside a week in February “for the purpose of emphasizing what has already been learned about the Negro during the year”; what he started became Black History Month in 1976.

And yet, from that old feeling, they are helping Black History Month — and the year-round teaching of the topic — evolve to a new stage.

“I definitely think that Black Lives Matter encouraged people to learn about other movements that came before,” says Tatiana Amaya, 19, a freshman at Claremont McKenna College who took a required black history course in her Philadelphia high school. “It’s central to understanding that black oppression still exists today.”