Where Does Black History Month Stand in the Art Room?

Every February, Black History Month gives us a moment to highlight the important contributions of Black artists. Since 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford asked Americans to, “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history,” Black History Month has served as a reminder for educators to include diversity in their classrooms. This is a good thing. It’s important to highlight history that is too often forgotten or brushed aside.

I value the importance of Black History Month, but I do not observe it in my classroom and I haven’t for years. Here’s why.

It started with a question.
“Mrs. Purtee, why do we only talk about Black artists in February?

Ouch. Although this observation wasn’t entirely true, it was close enough to make me reflect. I was proud of the units I taught for Black History month. The content was great, the students loved the projects, and I felt good being inclusive. However, this question challenged my ideas about the value of what I was doing. I’d unconsciously been using my participation in Black History Month as a pass to only spend one tenth of the year actively educating about diversity.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh with her work
Artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh with work from her Stop Telling Women to Smile Campaign. {image source}

Thinking about a new approach, I decided I would include a range of artists in every project. This included Black artists but also any other artist falling outside the white, male-dominated tradition of Western art. I decided that for every project I would share work by three artists with different traits. This seemed challenging at first, but when I went beyond my intro-to-art-history knowledge of “important artists” and looked at current, practicing artists it was very feasible.

Maya Freelon Asante with her work
Artist Maya Freelon Asante with a mixed-media piece. {image source}

When I stopped celebrating Black History Month and started making a habit of showing diverse artists to my students, my teaching improved. Exposing students to different points of view made the content of my lessons richer and students’ learning deeper. This month, I’ll teach about Black artists, but I will every other month, too. I want my students to know that anyone can be an artist; that artists with something valuable to say come in all ethnicities, races, and genders.

 I want my students to know that anyone can be an artist; that artists with something valuable to say come in all ethnicities, races, and genders.

Celebrating Black History Month is good, but actively supporting diversity every day is far better for teaching and learning. If you’re looking for some inspiring Black artists to introduce your students to, download the handy guide below.

7 Inspiring Black Artists Download

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What are your thoughts on Black History Month?
Should it be celebrated in our classrooms?

Melissa Purtee

Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.

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  • KE

    My school has a black history month program at the end of February. I am expected to show student artwork made for this month specifically, even though I try to teach a diversity of artists all year long. Its pretty frustrating to be boxed into one month. Any ideas? (I have been told to focus on Aminah Robinson [whom I love] since she just passed away)

    • melissa purtee

      If you want to showcase the work your students have been doing all year that’s inspired by Black artists you could always present that idea to your admin – it could be in addition to what you are being asked to do.However, Aminah Robinson sounds like a fun topic for a lesson and there is power in a whole school celebrating something together. It sounds like your students already know many diverse artists, which is great!

  • melissa purtee

    If you want to showcase the work your students have been doing all year that’s inspired by Black artists you could always present that idea to your admin – it could be in addition to what you are being asked to do.However, Aminah Robinson sounds like a fun topic for a lesson and there is power in a whole school celebrating something together. It sounds like your students already know many diverse artists, which is great!

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