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Opinion: We could be getting so much more out of Black History Month. Here’s how

Editor’s Note: Jemar Tisby, PhD is the author of the book, “The Color of Compromise,” and his forthcoming book is “The Spirit of Justice.” He is a professor of history at Simmons College of Kentucky, and writes frequently at JemarTisby.Substack.com. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

As a historian of race, I find Black History Month to be the most wonderful time of the year.

Jemar Tisby - Acorn Studio
Jemar Tisby - Acorn Studio

The whole country turns its attention toward Black history-makers and their stories. We plan events, talk about books and remind ourselves that Black history is indeed American history.

But there is an issue with how most of us commemorate Black History Month.

We tend to view Black history as isolated points on a timeline instead of a coherent and continuous story.

When we look at Black history as a set of separate facts without their proper context, we can miss the significance — and the beauty — of it.

This troubling lack of context is also why so many people think history is boring. If it’s just memorizing names and dates devoid of the compelling stories that surround them, then why should anyone care?

When we consider context, we address pivotal questions: Who were the other historical actors influencing outcomes? What other events served as precursors? What were the ramifications and aftereffects?

One example of the importance of context when studying Black history is the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

Most of us know of the horrific events that day in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963 when four Black girls at church — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — were killed in an explosion caused by dynamite.

It was a stunning act of racial terrorism, even in the Jim Crow South.

But context tells us that the bombing was one of many in a city that had already earned the ignominious nickname “Bombingham.”

This horrific act also came partly as a response to the Children’s Crusade, which happened in May of 1963. Hundreds of young people, from middle school to high school, went through training in nonviolent direct action in preparation to march and protest. Some of that training happened at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

The images of children being sprayed with firehoses and police dogs snarling at them is etched in our national memory. But the protests were effective, and city officials agreed to what became known as the “Birmingham Truce Agreement,” which acquiesced to protestors’ demands for desegregation according to a specified timetable.

The first public school in Birmingham to desegregate was Graymont Elementary School on September 4, just days before the bombing.

In the aftermath, the bombing had the opposite of its intended effect. The attack did not intimidate racial justice activists. Instead it emboldened them to work harder and helped mobilize public sentiment around desegregation.

We miss all this if we only look at one date on the calendar.

If you want to get the most out of Black History Month and understand the larger flow of history, here are a few practices that can help.

Go to a museum … alone.

I know it may take some planning to get the time and make the arrangements to spend an afternoon flying solo, but it’s worth it.

You get to linger over the artifacts. Read every caption. Sit on a bench and marinate on what you’re learning.

We are so often rushed through a museum because we’re with others and we have to accommodate our schedule to theirs.

What if you took all the time you needed to absorb the history at a museum?

Read a whole book on some aspect of Black history. 

This isn’t a stretch for folks who love to read, but I’ve learned never to overestimate how many people grab their facts randomly online instead of sitting down with a book for an extended period.

Reading a book on history from beginning to end, especially books written by actual historians, gives you a sense of the context and overall timeline of an era.

You learn what people and ideas influenced figures from the past. You discover lesser-known and under-appreciated people who played a major role in shaping the past. You gain a notion of what political, economic and social dynamics influenced decisions.

Reading Jonathan Eig’s detailed new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, will reveal King not as a mythological figure but as a man who was brilliant in some areas and disappointingly flawed in others — just like every other human being.

Other well-written and researched books include “Until I Am Free,” Keisha Blain’s biography of legendary Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer, and Clint Smith’s “How the Word is Passed.”

You can also check online for Black History Month book reading lists.

Or you can make history come alive by asking a family member or friend about a historical event or time period.

I remember asking my mom, who was a young teacher in Michigan during the Civil Rights movement, what she remembered about the era.

Even though she lived in the North, schools would occasionally get warnings about protests and potential riots. When these notifications came over the PA system, she would have to take her class into the hallway and have the children sit with their hands covering their heads in case rocks or bricks came through the windows.

The history we learn from people around us may never end up in a book or documentary, but it adds personal context and significance to the past that we might otherwise never have known.

To get the most out of Black History Month, you can also try explaining some historical event or person to someone else, especially children.

You know you understand a topic deeply when you can effectively teach it to someone else.

Explaining Black history, especially to a young person, brings with it the opportunity for them to ask questions in their own way.

Who was that person? Why were they important? Why did they make that choice? Why does this matter?

When we talk about Black history to other people, their questions and curiosity will inspire us to form a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the subject.

Finally, access the primary sources.

Much of what we learn about history comes filtered from the lens and perspectives of others. This isn’t necessarily bad, but primary sources offer us the unmediated tales of the past.

Primary sources are the words and actions that come directly from the historical actors themselves. They are speeches, sermons, songs, letters, memos and eyewitness testimonies from the people who were actually there.

Documentary histories such as “Eyes on the Prize,” “African American Voices: A Documentary Reader from Emancipation to the Present” and “African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness,” collect dozens of primary sources in a single volume.

While we can always learn from others, there is no replacing looking at the words and actions of history for yourself.

Black History Month serves as an annual cultural tradition where we get to focus on the people and events that often go overlooked and under-appreciated.

Rather than sharing a few posts on social media or reading a few articles online, we can get the most out of Black History Month by recognizing history as a continuous, dramatic story and not just a set of disconnected dates.

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