February 10, 2022

As our nation celebrates Black History Month, I’m thinking a lot about hidden histories and how history is taught. February is a time to illuminate the experiences of Black people in the United States and their outstanding accomplishments in the face of injustice. That was the vision of Black History Month founder Carter G. Woodson, and it is important. Yet educators are facing significant challenges in doing that this year and, frankly, every day of every year.

Greg Moore shares an important perspective on this issue in his recent article about Black History Month, “Why, As A Black Man, I Have Always Hated Black History Month.” Moore’s point that “if there is a Black History Month that means it must be situated in White History Year” is well made. History can make societies stronger, but only if it is fully taught and fully understood—and if understanding leads to action to address injustices.

For me, learning U.S. history is like exploring a garden. I might think I understand everything about the garden by quickly strolling through and glancing at the pretty things—but I can’t. The seeds of the plants are invisible. The roots, embedded deep in the soil, are hidden. Many of those who planted the garden—their stories and realities—are absent from view. In fact, you can’t understand anything if you don’t explore the invisible and invaluable truths hidden from sight.

When I was little, I took many high-speed walks through U.S. history with my classmates. We were in a race to absorb specific dates and facts. It felt like we spent months meandering through America’s early years—viewed through the eyes of the founding fathers and colonists—and then accelerated, madly zooming from war to war. But the seeds of racism were invisible. The roots of injustice, embedded deeply in society, were hidden. The people who experienced racism and injustice—their stories and realities—were absent from my textbooks.

Outside of school, I stumbled upon primary sources that helped me dig beneath the surface of history. When I was 11, I discovered the full valor and brutality of the Civil Rights Movement by viewing photos by Frank Dandridge and others in old issues of Life and Time. When I was 14, I learned about Japanese internment camps—long after we covered World War II in class—in an autobiography in my town library. This year, I found the writings of Zitkala-Sa, and I wondered if students are reading her autobiographical stories as they sprint through U.S. history. I hope so. I hope students are finding and exploring many voices that share invisible and invaluable truths.

What are some of the sources that you turn to dig beneath the surface of U.S. history? Here are a few that I recommend:

Would you like to preserve a vital piece of history? Sign up to celebrate Douglass Day 2022 on February 14. You’ll be joining a wonderful group in transcribing the records of The Colored Conventions, the nineteenth century’s longest campaign for Black civil rights.

Kimberly Elliott is the director of Communications for EDC’s U.S. Division.


Photo credit: Trikosko, M. S. (1963). Demonstrators marching in the street holding signs during the March on Washington [photograph]. Library of Congress Online Catalog. https://www.loc.gov/item/2013647400/


4 Replies


Replying to:
Adam Swanson
I particularly love films. Spike Lee's three-hour opus "Malcolm X" from 1992 was a recent watch that I loved. Reginald Hudlin's "Marshall" was also a good film I saw recently. As you know, I'm a big reader too. In the vein of this post, I particularly love "Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone" by James Baldwin, "Minor Feelings" by Cathy Park Hong, "Just Us" by Claudia Rankine, "Heavy" by Kiese Laymon, and "The Source of Self-Regard" by Toni Morrison, to name a few. I also more recently read Clint Smith's "How The Word Is Passed," and last fall I read Douglass' "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave." I have a constant longing to know what I can about the spaces I occupy and how everyone around me got to be here, too, and the collective movement offered through stories is how I like to dig beneath the surface. Love this piece, Kim!

Replying to:
Kim Elliott
Hi, Adam~~Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing these great authors and their works. I left so many authors/books/things that I value out of this piece and your comment gives me a great chance to share a few more: Richard Wright's "Black Boy," all of Zora Neale Hurston's works (check out this new article re: a collection of essays by Hurston, if you haven't done so already...https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/feb/27/you-dont-know-us-negroes-by-zora-neale-hurston-review-fearless-and-dazzling-essays), Toni Morrison's works, the data visualization work of W.E.B. Du Bois (https://www.tableau.com/about/blog/2019/2/how-web-du-bois-used-data-visualization-confront-prejudice-early-20th-century), so much more...Dig on, Adam, and thanks again.

Replying to:
Siobhan Bredin
Thank you, Kim! Appreciate the original sources.

Replying to:
Kim Elliott
So glad to share the original sources, Siobhan, and would love to hear if you have some sources that have been important to you as you explore history.

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