What Can White Teachers Do to Support Black History Month?

The posters for special events tied to Black History Month start appearing several weeks ahead, and I mark my personal calendar. I try out multiple tactics for encouraging my students—most of them white—to attend. But I’m also seeking ways to support learning about Black history and culture at my predominantly white institution (or, in shorthand, a PWI) in more sustained ways, throughout the year. And I’m trying to be attentive, as well, to what not to do.


What Not to Do:

The Atlantic recently catalogued some negative examples of uninformed (even potentially damaging) teaching about slavery that is going on in some actual classrooms. On the first day of Black History Month, Melinda D. Anderson’s article drew on what the sub-headline referenced as a “new report find[ing] that the topic is mistaught and often sentimentalized,” leaving students “alarmingly misinformed as a result.” A Georgia elementary school circulated math word problems about the beating of slaves. A California high school stages a traumatizing reenactment of a slave ship. Such anecdotes made for a compelling lead paragraph in the Atlantic story.


 lincoln-lincoln park


The image at the head of this sobering essay had already caught my attention, though. A photograph of the Lincoln Emancipation Memorial in Washington, DC, recalled, for me, a visit I’d made to that same park just a few months ago. One of my daughters had recently moved to a row house just a few blocks away. And we’d taken the family’s first grandbaby for a stroller ride to Lincoln Park. Families had gathered to enjoy a sunny day.

Photo by Sarah R. Robbins

Yet, the statue’s design made me uneasy. Positioning Lincoln in a standing (even a looming-over) position above a kneeling slave, its visual rhetoric seemed yet another framing of the white savior figure rescuing the otherwise-helpless Black man. Dedicated in 1876, the statue was certainly in line with many stories about Lincoln as emancipator in his own time. But the pose still rankled.

Seeing Differently:

I commented to my daughter and my husband that I much preferred a companion monument facing the Lincoln one. Depicting Black educator Mary McLeod Bethune with several energetic students, this statue conveyed a tone of confident hope and Black leadership.

My companions weren’t surprised by my preference. After all, I study women educators from the nineteenth century to the current moment. My most recent book, Learning Legacies, includes multiple celebrations of Black and Native American students who themselves became teachers during Bethune’s era and thereafter. The picture I was more eager to take home to share with future classes was not of Lincoln, but Bethune.

bethune 1

Photo by Sarah R. Robbins

After reading Anderson’s thought-provoking Atlantic article earlier this month—Black History Month–I visited the National Park Service’s online discussion of Lincoln Park. The NPS says the park “features monuments to two of the nation’s greatest leaders, President Abraham Lincoln and Civil Rights Activist and Educator Mary McLeod Bethune.” As a feminist teacher aspiring to be a womanist ally, I was glad to see Bethune given her due in the NPS write-up. I also noted the NPS’s report that, when unveiled in 1974, this was “the first monument to honor a black woman in a public park in the District of Columbia.” (The Lincoln statue’s unveiling was almost 100 years earlier, in 1876.) What might my students make, I wondered, of the century-long gap between the installations of these two monuments?

The NPS online overview raised another question for me as well. I was struck by the online account’s describing Frederick Douglass as having expressed both “approval and disapproval of the monument” to Lincoln.

It didn’t long to find an online copy of Douglass’s “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” originally delivered as a speech for the April, 1876, ceremony and then published as a pamphlet. Among the positive aspects of the occasion that Douglass salutes is the mere ability to hold a ceremony including people of his race in a public space—something that would not “have been tolerated here twenty years ago.” Thus, he declares, “That we are here in peace today is a compliment and credit to American civilization, and a prophecy of still greater national enlightenment and progress in the future.”

vertical lincoln lincoln statue looking up

Nonetheless, Douglass insists, the moment of commemoration, as embodied in the statue, also required that certain truths be told. Accordingly, Douglass reminds his audience, Lincoln “was preeminently the white man’s president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people in this country.” Only then, after insisting on a comprehensive portrait acknowledging Lincoln’s initial unwillingness to serve as an anti-slavery champion, does Douglass also assert the rightness of honoring Lincoln. For Douglass, the President deserved credit for having overcome a strong identity as “a white man” who “shared the prejudices common to his countrymen toward the colored race.” In the end, Douglass avers, Lincoln did become a “zealous, radical, and determined” anti-slavery champion.

Douglass “Reading” White Limitations and Black Honor:

            I’ll be sharing Douglass’s speech with my students in its entirety. And I’ll be asking them to think about his call that we remember Lincoln as a man of complexity, as an ally, indeed, but also a man limited by his very whiteness. I’ll ask them to think, too, about the features of the Lincoln Park monument itself that speak out visually about a “savior” role’s limitations. I’ll share Joe Heim’s 2012 article for the Washington Post, which addressed numerous complexities bound up in the Emancipation Memorial’s history—including both the longstanding objections to its design and the pride in race leadership that led Blacks to raise funds for its creation in the first place.

I’ll ask students why they think Douglass chose to end his 1876 speech as he did, The ever-astute orator’s closing sentence merits our attention, and perhaps some debate: “When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln.”

Joe Heim’s 2012 Washington Post article briefly references the Bethune statue and even points out that, for a while, some locals tried (though unsuccessfully) to shift the name of Lincoln Park to Bethune Park. But the contrast he finds more compelling is between the Lincoln statue and one across town, where the African American Civil War Memorial presents four Black union servicemen: “The looks on their faces are determined, full of purpose,” Heim observes. Unlike the Emancipation Memorial’s portrayal of a kneeling figure, “There is nothing meek about it.”

Honoring Bethune’s Presence as Counter-narrative

I’m grateful for Heim’s reporting. And I look forward to discussing it in my classes. But I confess I find the face-off between Lincoln and the slave, Bethune and her students, at least as important to examine. (When Bethune’s statue was [finally] unveiled, Lincoln’s was rotated to face hers.)

I know there’s more work to do to consider the implications of these this intertextual “monument narrative.” For example, what arguments—similar to and/or different from Douglass’s from the previous century– were made in the speeches when Bethune’s statue was unveiled in 1974? How was her legacy honored? A New York Times article describing the event identifies several speakers, including Shirley Chisholm. But I haven’t (yet) been able to track down full transcripts.

Meanwhile, for some worthwhile topics of discussion this month, the language of the Bethune statue’s physical design—a counter-narrative to Lincoln’s—provides plenty to consider. For example, what does the image of Bethune’s teaching-in-action memorial add to the Lincoln Park site’s representation of Black History? How do the Black children posed with her tell a different story of American Blackness than the kneeling slave in the park’s other statue?  What’s to be gained from an art work commemorating Black leadership itself as a pathway to uplift? How does such visual story-telling counter not only the views of Blackness in the earlier monument, but also negative language circulating in our culture today?

bethune face front

            Bethune’s own words are well worth remembering in this context. Her memorial presents her “Legacy of Learning” in both the bronze scroll she is offering to two children and the words inscribed on the monument: “I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you also a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow man. I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people.”

As a white teacher seeking to build on Bethune’s words and work, I’ll strive to honor that legacy—this month and beyond.


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