Beyond Black History Month: Decolonize your Syllabus

I love that Black History month brings attention work done by people of color, including sources they’ve written and stories created detailing their rich and complicated histories. However, integrating writing by and about Black folks cannot be contained within a single month of the year. As educators, we need to incorporate writing and scholarship by people of color throughout the year in our classrooms. Inspired by Gwendolyn Rosemond, who’s shared links about Black history and culture regularly in a facebook group I’m in, I gathered some of these resources to help us do this kind of work. From discussing Black activists, artists, and scientists to assigning readings by Black scholars and authors, our syllabi provide a starting point for integrating diverse voices in teaching and learning in higher education year-round.

Logo that reads "Decolonize your Syllabus"
Decolonize Your Syllabus by Yvette De Chavez / @yvettedontlie

The Cite Black Women Collective: This site “push[es] people to engage in a radical praxis of citation that acknowledges and honors Black women’s transnational intellectual production.” Their project is ground in five fundamental principles:

  1. Read Black women’s work
  2. Integrate Black women into the CORE of your syllabus (in life & in the classroom)
  3. Acknowledge Black women’s intellectual production.
  4. Make space for Black women to speak.
  5. Give Black women the space and time to breath. (Cite Black Women Collective)

The Cite Black Women Collective has grown to include a blog and a podcast. You can follow them @citeblackwomen on twitter.

Show Don’t Tell: Decolonize your classroom, syllabus, rules, and practices by Dr. April Warren-Grice: Great recommendations for transforming your classroom by investing students in the learning process as partners. Warren-Grice suggests discussing modern social movements like Black Lives Matter and Ferguson and asking students to connect these movements to the past as well as to their own lives. She suggests bringing in speakers from marginalized populations, including “Black, Brown, Asian, Latinx, differently abled, speaks English as a second language, one who identifies as LGBTQIA, and etc who are not only experts in the field but who champion social justice as a part of their work.” Math, science, and engineering classes could present stories of “people of color and other marginalized groups who have made amazing contributions in the field.” (Also I adore her mission statement).

10 Books About Race To Read Instead Of Asking A Person Of Color To Explain Things To You by Sadie Trombetta: Reading and reflecting about race and racism in America is so important to understanding the systems of oppression that surround us. Check out these books whose topics range from white privilege to police brutality to the Black Lives Matter movement. Others detail the history of racial oppression in the U.S., the ways that search engines perpetuate racial bias, and the psychology of racism.

Black History

Tiffany Mitchell Patterson describes 3 ways to improve education about slavery in the US. First, she encourages teachers to identify presidents as owners of slaves to upturn the myth that presidents were “nice and humane” slaveholders. She also suggests moving beyond textbooks bv using primary sources to center the voices of enslaved peoples, because “Hearing the voices of those who were enslaved is more powerful than what could ever be captured in a textbook.” Finally, she encourages teachers to get out of the classroom and visit historical and cultural locations including “smaller state and local museums with exhibits, plantations, cemeteries, auction blocks and historical markers” within your city, state, or local community, as well as your local library or archives. This article is FULL of amazing resources for a variety of ages.

Emmett Till’s Murder, and How America Remembers Its Darkest Moments by Audra D. S. Burch, Veda Shastri, and Tim Chafee: The legacy of Emmett Till, a teen murdered in 1955 after accused of whistling whistling at a white woman behind the counter of the store, is still being wrestled with today. This piece examines topics of preservation, memory, and racial reconciliation in the small town of Money, Mississippi. While efforts to preserve the store where Till’s fateful story began have emerged, they continue to stutter as the store falls into greater disrepair. At stake, the authors claim, “in Money and other communities across the country is the question of how Americans choose to acknowledge the country’s past.” This article considers how we handle sites of contentious racial memory — as sites that “should be razed and forgotten” or those that should be converted into sites of memory and racial justice?h

Black History Trail Makes 200 Stops Across Massachusetts by Katharine Q. Seelye: This article discusses an amazing project Tufts University professors Kendra Field and Kerri Greenidge are working on to map sites of Black history from slavery to Black Lives Matter in Massachusetts. Massachusetts, became the first U.S. state to legalize slavery in 1641, is also remembered for a hub of the abolition movement. While not producing a contained walking trail, this project aims to contextualize these sites and “to ‘complicate the narrative,’ to fill in gaps, show African-American people in all their dimensions and place present-day struggles for racial justice in a continuum.” This article features several sites such as the ‘Faces of Dudley’ Mural and the Royall House and Slave Quarters.

Cotton Bales And Jail Beatings: The Civil Rights And Farm Activism Of Fannie Lou Hamer by Cynthia Greenlee: This article details the life and activism of Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist in Mississippi. Before her notable activist career, Famer, a sharecropper, founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), which worked for better conditions for Black agricultural workers. This article describes this farm activism as a precursor to her larger civil rights activism.

Black Art & Culture

Museums Celebrate The Black Women Artists History Has Overlooked by Priscilla Frank brings nine amazing Black artists to our attention with brief bios and eye-catching examples of their work.

The most important black woman sculptor of the 20th century deserves more recognition: Keisha N. Blain details the work of sculptor Augusta Savage. Although little of her work remains (most of her work was done in plaster because it was more affordable than other sculpting media), Blain argues, “Savage remains arguably the most influential black woman sculptor of the 20th century. Her efforts no doubt helped to pave the way for many black women sculptors to follow.”

Literature and Writing

For the last few years, I’ve committed to reading more fiction written by people of color. There are some great lists of fiction & non-fiction written in the past few years or coming out later in 2019. Check them out: 43 New & Upcoming Books to Discover This Black History Month by Cybil (2019) | The 16 Best Books of the Year by Black Authors by Hope Wabuke (2018) | 48 Books By Women and Nonbinary Authors of Color to Read in 2019 by R.O. Kwon | 46 Books By Women of Color to Read in 2018 by R.O. Kwon. Some of my favorites I’ve read lately have been Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and American Street by Ibo Zoboi.

And, while most of us probably aren’t assigning children’s books in our classrooms, sharing books about strong black characters can help change the world view of our children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and the other children that surround us. Here are a few great collections of books with black protagonists: Black Girl Magic: 33 Picture Books Featuring Black Female Protagonists (by Charnaie Gordon) | 28 More Black Picture Books that aren’t about Boycotts, Buses, or Basketball (by Scott Woods) | 10 Children’s Books Handling Race and Identity In A Smart Way (by Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez).

Credits: Gwendolyn Rosemond for finding and sharing many of these resources, and to Yvette De Chavez (@yvettedontlie) for her fabulous Decolonize Your Syllabus image.

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