Celebrating and learning during Black History Month

February is Black History Month. I’m wearing my historian hat as I write this blog because I think it is important to understand the past, to be aware of how the understanding of Black history is being threatened in our present day, but to also have confidence in the teachers and students at Colorado Academy to thoughtfully navigate current times while learning about American history.

The celebration of Black History Month was initiated in 1926 as Black History Week, by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Dr. Woodson chose the second week of February, as it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). In the 1960s, African American educators at Kent State turned the week into a month-long event. Then, as part of the celebration of America’s Bicentennial, President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized the month. Thus, every year, schools, universities, and various journals, museums, libraries, and news outlets share stories of critical figures in American history, the pursuit of racial justice and civil rights, as well as the challenges that African Americans have faced in our nation’s history. What is often highlighted is the courage, bravery, and persistence of Black Americans fighting for equality.

As a historian, the movement by a number of state legislatures and governors to limit and roll back the evidentiary-based examination of American history is disturbing. In Virginia, an executive order disallows the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts like Critical Race Theory and its progeny” in schools. Virginia created an email tip line where parents can inform on teachers. While very few schools outside the higher education arena specifically teach critical race theory (CRT)—a legal theory that examines systemic and structural racism, CRT does inform how many historians view the history of this nation. Think of the 3/5ths Compromise in the Constitution or urban housing policy in the 20th century—these are self-evident systemic inequities baked into public policy. Some parents in this country have organized against teaching about race and racism, but much of this action has been fueled by organized political activists and has not been an organic movement. In Tennessee, that state legislature outlawed the teaching of concepts they deemed divisive. Also, Tennessee lawmakers outlawed any teaching that would make an individual feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race or sex.”

From a First Amendment perspective, I see these as problematic laws—they likely will be challenged in court. From an academic perspective, these efforts are chilling, as they will restrict, in those states, an accurate teaching of American history and literature. These moves also may force good teachers out of the workforce. At the same time, there is also a growing movement to remove books from libraries that teach about race and racism. I have never imagined that this nation could limit free speech and academic freedom, such as we are now seeing in other states. The potential tragedy here is that these histories that examine the most tragic and disconcerting parts of American history—although hard to read and comprehend—can also reveal incredible stories of triumph and heroism.

Resistance to racism and slavery created a distinct African American culture that has shaped fundamental aspects of America and what it means to be an American. Let me give you an example you may not have heard about. You probably know the story of the Lone Ranger, a mythological figure in American pop culture—and a white fictional character. Do you know that some observers of western history think he is based on Bass Reeves, an enslaved person who escaped his bondage and became the first federal African American Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi?

During the Civil War, Reeves was forced by his enslavers to fight with the Confederacy. He escaped to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. This was a wilderness where southeastern Native American nations had been forced to resettle. There, he learned to speak Creek and Seminole and came to understand American Indian culture and practices, as well as the geography of the Indian Territory. After the war, the federal government worked to settle Oklahoma, a lawless place where outlaws could seek refuge. Reeves was recruited to serve as a Deputy Marshal because of his language, tracking, and shooting skills. He was an epic lawman and as heroic as anyone one sees in a classic western movie. As a Black man, he went after some of the most infamous white outlaws—something beyond imagination at that time of racial discrimination. There are too many stories of close calls and intense adventures to describe here. According to one of the leading authorities on Reeves, “To me, Bass Reeves is the greatest frontier hero in American history—bar none. I don’t know who you could compare him to. This guy walked in the Valley of Death every day for thirty-two years and came out alive.”

Sadly and predictably, once Oklahoma became a state in the early 20th century, Reeves was removed from his post because of the color of his skin, as Jim Crow segregation dominated southern states and he was forced out of federal service. Whether Reeves is the basis for the Lone Ranger is not really important or relevant. (Note the only connection is that many of those he arrested—and this is in the hundreds of criminals—were sent to Detroit, which hosted the radio station that broadcast the first Lone Ranger stories.) What is important is that we can’t learn the story of this American without better understanding slavery, racism, and discrimination. Our kids can handle this subject matter and will be better humans for gaining this knowledge. Surely, Deputy Marshal Reeves suffered far worse and stood tall.

It is hard to know just how subject matter can impact an individual. It’s acceptable to get emotional when we read literature and something terrible happens to a character. We can learn about a past injustice and also build resiliency. I’ve been teaching American history for 25 years now. I teach tough subjects like the history of the Vietnam War, as well as survey courses in American history, where we study themes of racism. I don’t believe any students have emerged from those learning experiences wanting to renounce their citizenship. Our students want to dig in and debate. CA teachers encourage different perspectives. We want students to grapple with different ideas. We want them to challenge their own thinking. One of our Middle School teachers tells her students, “I am going to argue with you no matter what you think.” We cannot move forward as a nation without understanding our past. And, we cannot create a sense of belonging for all of our students without examining America’s past.

During Black History Month, I encourage you to find more stories like that of Bass Reeves. Our libraries have many great offerings that are available for students to check out and share.