Why We Still Need February

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Illustration for article titled Why We Still Need February

Black History Month has barely begun, but some columnists are calling for an end.

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It's time, they say, to abolish the month-long observance because of—you guessed it—the election of Barack Obama. His presidency proves that African Americans are fully intertwined into the American experience. So why relegate our history to a month of “rote and repetitious rituals?” Michael Ross asked in his essay on The Root.

One of my Web colleagues called the month “discriminatory.”

“Frankly, I'd like to think we'd outgrown the need to educate our population on the trials and tribulations of black Americans,” she wrote.

Hold up. Not yet. Let me share with you a lesson I created for fifth- and sixth-grade students. It's called “Alfred and Felecia go to the polls.”

The lesson starts with a teacher playing the voter registrar in Natchez, Miss., in 1866. The students play Alfred and Felecia, two former slaves. The youngsters give a speech to the registrar, explaining why they should be allowed to vote.

The registrar sends them back to their seats because slaves were freed in 1865, but they weren't citizens. So they couldn't vote. The kids are shocked and angry. We go through various stages of history: After the 14th amendment and after the 15th amendment, when only boys got to vote.

The children write, and the words flow from their hearts. In 40 minutes, the students experience all the “trials and tribulations” associated with African-American enfranchisement in this country. For the rest of the class, we talk about the privilege of voting and why so many people cried the night Barack Obama was elected.

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Next we talk about women lagging behind men and why Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin embody women's political power. And we tell them that their responsibility was to encourage every adult to vote and to register themselves the day they turn 18.

In that class, the history came out of a book and into the lives of my students.

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Could I teach this lesson at any time? Of course. In fact, I taught it in November. But that was at a predominantly black school.

But at a non-black school, the lesson—if considered—would probably be scheduled for February. And only in February. That unique window of opportunity is still very valuable and necessary.

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The push for diversity has helped turn Black History Month into an institution, so that non-black educators are looking for lessons like “Alfred and Felecia go to the polls.” The month is a guaranteed opportunity to teach how African-American victories—such as the 14th amendment which extended civil rights to all Americans—benefited society as a whole. It's my one sure shot, and I'll take it.

But the importance of Black History Month transcends its emphasis on race. It's one of the few times in the year when the nation—the nation—is encouraged to plumb its past. Americans are an ahistorical society. We’re always searching for the new thing. Thus the observance benefits us all by sharing the stories of folks who overcame the odds against them.

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Like the real Alfred and Felecia. Yes, they existed. They were slaves on the Scruggs plantation in Williamson County, Tenn., about 25 miles southwest of Nashville. In 1852, Alfred and Felecia and their eight children were listed in the plantation inventory of their former slave master.

In 1867, Alfred Scruggs became the first black person in the county to register to vote.

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Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs, a journalist and teaching artist in Ohio, is a regular contributor to The Root.

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