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Beyond ‘heroes and holidays’: In search of more meaningful ways to celebrate Black History Month


Mary McLeod Bethune, center, with officers of the National Council of Negro Women.

By Coshandra Dillard

Learning about black history has always been a passion of mine. As long as I can remember, I’ve absorbed historical facts and have journeyed to places where I could learn more.
People who know me probably think I celebrate black history year-round—and that would be correct.
In a world history class during my junior year of high school, I urged the teacher to observe Black History Month. While she agreed it was a good idea, she later ignored the promise and the issue wasn’t revisited until the end of the month. It didn’t end well. After telling me “we have more important things to do,” I, along with the other three black students, walked out in protest.
The principal didn’t understand why we were so upset but he forced the teacher to incorporate a black history theme.
While I was unhappy with the principal’s tone-deaf reaction and the blatant disrespect by the teacher, I felt it was a minor victory as she had to assign a Black History Month project.
We were to produce a report about a black figure who made significant strides in America and then present it to the class.
I had a feeling it would be a dud, and I was right. The majority of the reports were about Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks.
When we disregard black history much of the year, and then reduce it to bite-size facts about Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman for only 28 days, we’re trivializing black people’s existence.
While it’s easy to be guilty of this pitfall, we should work harder to make Black History Month about more than “heroes and holidays.”  How often do we drag out the same heroes—whom already justifiably receive recognition—and ignore the plethora of figures and conversations that can be had? In this information age, we have access to history in ways we didn’t before.
In addition to celebrating heroes year-round, we can also learn about our cultural origins and recognizing those who have been long forgotten because they supposedly weren’t respectable enough.
Discussing intersections is a must. After all, if we are going to say, “Black Lives Matter,” then it must include all black lives. An added layer of being part of another “other” category, —such as  women, LGBTQIA, the disabled, or nonreligious— brings forth more stigma and ostracism.


Bayard Rustin was instrumental in the civil rights movement and the March on Washington. He wasn’t visible in the movement because he was openly gay. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


Black members of the LGBTQIA community have made contributions to society that moved culture toward love and acceptance. There are plenty of black women who strategized and led the civil rights movement without much recognition. Right here in East Texas,  activists like Dorothy Lee and Frank Robinson,who made a lasting impact to local culture and politics, are not recognized. Let’s lift these folks up and find ways to expand our knowledge of black history— locally and nationally.
In addition, we have to do a better job of learning about the renowned figures and themes we cart out every year. According to a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, American teachers lack deep coverage of slavery in the classroom. It’s a concern, as American slavery is woven into the country’s foundation, and helped create policies and attitudes that remain with us today. Textbooks are inadequate and students struggle with the most basic questions about American slavery, according to the report. Hence, the importance of seeking resources and filling in the blanks at home.
But still, Black History Month can go beyond slavery, the civil rights movement, dashikis, afros and traditional soul food. We should dig deeper and explore blackness, everyday experiences and the need for equity.

Henrietta Lacks with husband, David, in 1945. The unauthorized use of her “immortal cells” lead to discoveries and treatment options in modern medicine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Why not examine the impact of racism and white supremacy, and how it affects how we all live today, from disparities in education and housing to health care and employment? Much of the black “firsts” and remarkable moments in history were entangled with bigotry.
When we don’t take the time to study and understand our history, it often leads to whitewashing and/or cultural appropriation. For example, if people truly understood King, the commercial that aired during Super Bowl LII wouldn’t have happened.
Using King’s “The Drum Major Instinct” speech to sell trucks was a blow to his legacy because he was critical of commercialism and the harms of capitalism in that very speech. The ad featured military servicemen to mirror King’s message of greatness, but he was clearly against war and American imperialism.
The obvious solution would be to add more accurate and nuanced accounts of the black experience throughout the African diaspora in textbooks and in other media. Most importantly, we have to keep this effort at the forefront of our consciousness beyond February.

Thanks to journalist and activist Charles Preston, you can find plenty of information about black historical figures, events and topics here. It’s a free library filled with PDFs, e-books, and videos.












For teachers, download A Framework for Teaching American Slavery here. Beyond Heroes and Holidays, A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development is available for sale here.

To learn about forgotten or hidden history, visit the Black History 365 tab or check out pieces I’ve written for Timeline here.











City of Tyler Black History Celebration

7-9 p.m. Feb. 10

Liberty Hall, 103 E. Erwin St.

The free, two-hour event features a multimedia presentation with guest speakers, music and video.

Black History Knowledge Bowl

8 a.m. Feb. 24

Texas College, 2404 N. Grand Ave.

After a 10-year hiatus, the Black History Knowledge Bowl is back. It was organized by and under the direction of  the Scholastic Target Education Program (STEP) with Connie Isabell and the late Judy Holman.

Teams from local churches, schools, and organizations will compete in a quiz competition to test their knowledge about Black history. The theme is “African-Americans in Times of War.”

The event begins with a short program and review of rules. An awards ceremony will conclude the event late in the afternoon. There will also be a black history exhibit by Yesterday’s Tomorrow.

In addition to the bowl, a Whiz Kid test featuring high school students, a theme-centered essay contest and team t-shirt competition will be held. There will be middle school and high school competitions.

For more information, to register a team, or to become a sponsor, email, on visit the Facebook page.




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