Black History Should Be Taught in Color

Teaching the Civil Rights Movement—the most important domestic struggle of the 20th Century—only in black and white makes it seem so far away. It happened in maximum living color.
Rosa Parks & Malcolm X.
2/11/21
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Hal Harris
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I always have two visuals whenever I conjure the Civil Rights Movement in my mind. Sometimes my brain throws up a photo reel of black and white, or sepia-toned, pictures of Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. More often than not though, I also get—in maximum living color—pictures of my grandmother.

My grandma lives and remains vibrant. Yet imagining the Civil Rights Movement—the most important domestic struggle of the 20th Century—only in black and white makes it seem so far away. The absence of blues and reds in the media we use to study the movement makes it seem like a historical struggle, making it harder to link it to the current conflagration of white supremacy and extremism in which the United States now struggles.

That struggle is the same that caused my grandmother to flee South Carolina in her youth and settle in Farragut Projects in Brooklyn, where she raised her family and began their decades-long trek into the middle class.

Grandma enjoyed blues and purples in her wardrobe. I know this because in the photo albums she had of her life in South Carolina and my family’s early life in New York, I was regaled by the faded color pictures she maintained behind screens of plastic. The colors helped my family’s history come to life.

I struggled with enhancing the monochromatic resources regarding the Movement during my teaching years. I loved studying the Black experience alongside my students. When I taught the Civil Rights Movement, I could not get my hands on any curricular material that was in color. I did my best to make it come alive in other ways—playing videos of Malcom X’s and MLK’s interviews, for example. But that footage still was in black and white. I began to feel then that the decisions to portray this history in only two colors was more than just a statement about what sources were available for students to study. Perhaps it was a way of creating artificial distance between the protests and sacrifices of the 1950s and 1960s, and the reasons why #BlackLivesMatter took off in the 2010s.

These struggles continued as I advanced in my career. During my principalship, the tension between grayscale and color came around conflicts concerning what all school leaders know is the most cherished tool of teachers—the copy machine. Color ink took up a considerable amount of our budget. While we agreed that we wanted data represented in color, it took us a while to determine which of the teaching material deserved to be represented in the mixtures of cyan, magenta, and yellow. It was a minor example of us constantly trying to apply a technical solution to what was emerging as an adaptive challenge that required us to unearth our beliefs and then, for the sake of grade-level progress, be willing to change them.

We finally had our breakthrough moment when looking at a stack of interim writing essays. A precious fifth grader had written, with conviction, that Martin Luther King Jr. had freed the slaves. We knew from a content perspective that we would have to reteach that social studies standard and ensure he knew the difference. Yet when me and some of the other instructional leaders in the building chatted with him, he mentioned how all the materials he saw in his social studies classes were in black and white. If that was the case, he said, then it made him think that all of the events we talked about happened in the same span of time.

A small thing. Yet children are great at constantly reminding adults that the small things do matter.

The link between historiography—the practice of studying history—and pedagogy is important from a content acquisition perspective. If we choose to present history in grayscale, it gives the impression that the issues we study with our students are settled in the dustbins of history. By choosing, instead, to use historical materials in color that match the way our students see the world, we convince them that history is a vital force in the human experience. We teach them that the struggles humans have faced in the past in learning how to live with each other informs their current lives.

If I were to redo my principalship, I would prioritize making sure that the academic content relating to equity—slavery, civil rights, immigration rights, etc.—were presented to students in the most vibrant colors available. I would make sure that students with visual impairments could benefit from a wealth of audio material so they too can hear and learn that the past is not past yet, and what animates the present are still unresolved questions about what happened before they were born.

Teaching the Civil Rights Movement in color honors that, for many Black folk, we have family members who were alive to participate and directly respond to it. My grandma vividly remembers the greenness of the state she fled at the tail end of the Great Migration, and the browns and concrete greys of the place where she raised my mother. We must honor her living and her memories.

Color brings alive the point that, based off the current political realities of #BlackLivesMatter and voter suppression, we have not moved away from yet. It also infuses an emphasis on equity throughout learning communities in regards to what academic content we must ensure is visually engaging to children.

Leaders—beef up the budget for the color copier and make it happen. Here are a few resources you can use to teach Black history in color:

The Color of Freedom: Reimagining portraits of the formerly enslaved. Scalawag Magazine.

A Collection of Rare Color Photographs Depicts MLK Leading the Chicago Freedom Movement. Smithsonian Magazine.

Fact check: Civil rights-era images weren't intentionally made black and white. USA Today.

Rare color photographs offer intimate glimpse of 1963 March on Washington. National Geographic.

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Hal Harris

Hal Harris

Hal Harris serves as Senior Director of Program Implementation and Adjunct Trainer Corps at New Leaders. He is committed to developing educators and leaders who are powerful and positive forces for change where it matters most: in schools, for students. Prior to joining New Leaders, Hal was a civics teacher and school principal.

Hal Harris

Hal Harris

Hal Harris

Hal Harris

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