Black children come from genius: How to teach Black history joyfully

Five approaches to teaching Black history that unearth our children’s joy by considering their happiness, wellness, beauty, and advocacy.
Gholdy Muhammad
Gholdy Muhammad
Gholdy Muhammad is an associate professor of literacy, language & culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her scholarship has appeared in leading educational journals and books. Muhammad was named one of the top 2022 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influencers of Educational Practice and Policy. She is the author of the best-selling book, "Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy" (Scholastic), and "Unearthing Joy" (Scholastic).

“We have a wonderful history behind us. We of the Journal of Negro History shall have going the rounds soon a lecture on the antebellum period, setting forth the stories of Negroes who did so much to inspire us. It reads like the history of people in a heroic age. We expect to send out from time to time books written for the express purpose of showing you that you have a history, a record behind you… They will say to you, “Who are you anyway? Your ancestors have never controlled empires or kingdoms and most of your race have contributed little to nothing to science and philosophy and mathematics.” … But if you will read the history of Africa, the history of your ancestors—people of whom you should feel proud—you will realize that they have a history that is worth while.… Let us, then, study this history, and study it with understanding that we are not, after all, an inferior people, but simply a people who have been set back, a people whose progress has been impeded. We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements.”
Carter G. Woodson, from “Some Things Negroes Need to Do”

Carter G. Woodson was a historical researcher and scholar who is known for his many educational and philosophical contributions to the world. In 1922, he penned the words above for the Southern Workman journal. In the essay, he expressed the need for Black people—children included—to (re)learn and recover their greatness through their histories.

His mission to center Black genius was inspired by the beautiful nature and essence of Black people. He knew we have a long, rich legacy and worked to resist those who overlooked, ignored, or erased it. In part, that is why he pioneered Black History Week in 1926, which later became Black History Month. He wrote:

“It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week. We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in History. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hatred and religious prejudice.”

Black History Month has evolved into a tradition to honor Black people and help everyone, regardless of cultural background, to remember and love us. Woodson sought to center truth and love—and, in the process, come into joy.

I honor Woodson and his legacy by asking, How can we continue to help Black children remember and love their Blackness during Black History Month and every other month of the year? How we can remind them of their genius, while celebrating their beauty and joy?

Teaching Black history: A fight for joy

To respond to those questions, I offer five approaches to teaching Black history that should unearth our children’s joy by considering their happiness, wellness, beauty, and advocacy. My goal is to help you help our young people to know that they come from greatness—a long lineage of brilliance, innovation, intellectualism, and joy.

1. Teach our children about Black geniuses of the past and present. After all, Black people have contributed enormously to a better humanity and society. Help students see themselves in Black genius and ask them to consider who they may become in this world. How will they use their genius?

2. When teaching about African American history, do not start with enslavement. Our lives began before that. We had joyful, beautiful, rich lives. We were queens and kings, and held positions that upheld humanity. We come from a rich continent rooted in resources. We must teach more complete and truthful histories, and not begin and end through lenses of the oppressor.

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3. Take moments to check in on students each day. As you greet them with love and kindness, ask them about their joy. Questions might include:

  • How’s your heart?
  • Are you experiencing any type of hurt, harm, or pain?
  • Do you feel joy when you come to school? If not, how can I make school more joyful?

4. Celebrate daily all the ways our students are genius. Don’t focus only on their test scores, but also their wider brilliance and talents, which, of course, large-scale assessments don’t measure.

5. Because students need to learn about Black joy and its necessity in life, develop a unit plan on it. Consider the following learning goals, using my five-part framework for culturally and historically responsive education:

  • Identity: Students will identify Black joy in their own lives.
  • Skills: Students will read texts (poetry, songs, picture books, essays or short stories) on Black joy and engage in comprehension strategies.
  • Intellect: Students will learn about Black joy throughout history.
  • Criticality: Students will learn to (re)claim Black joy in a country that does not always honor or love Black lives.
  • Joy: Students will learn about the joy of Afrofuturism.

Remember, our students are part of an ancestry of brilliant people who fought tirelessly for joy. Therefore, as leaders and educators, we must, by teaching Black history, also fight for the joy of our children today.

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