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Black History Month and Black Exceptionalism

Original illustration by Wenqing Ma '25, a Graphic Design major at RISD

Every February, up to my senior year of high school, my teachers would teach some variation of a “classic” Black History Month lesson, showing us videos entitled “10 Black Inventors” or “How Black People Contributed to Music History” followed by a five-minute “turn and talk” discussion about what we learned. After these lessons, I could make a list of a few Black figures and their inventions, like Garrett Morgan and the traffic light or George Crum and potato chips. However, while I knew it was important to celebrate these figures in my daily life, I felt like these conversations about them, and Black history more generally, were often treated as one and done until we had an almost identical lesson the following year. 

Some aspects of this pattern may be specific to my personal middle and high school experiences, yet many features of it are also universal. A Google search for “Black History Month people” produces repeated collages for the same few figures all hailed for their “exceptional” contributions to American society: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Barack Obama, and some others. Even when you search “Black History Month curriculum,” similar results are produced, with ads for classroom posters listing different Black inventors and black-and-white collages of Civil Rights era protests. 

Though Black History Month in its current form is seemingly so simplistic and repetitive, its origins have a bit more depth. Carter G. Woodson, an American historian labeled the “father of Black history,” heavily advocated for Black history to be more widely recognized throughout institutions, particularly schools, in the United States. In 1926 (during the second week of February to coincide with Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays), Woodson established “Negro History Week,” with its core intent to be a widespread effort to teach Black history in schools across the country. More specifically, Woodson remarked how teaching Black history is a form of “real education” that “inspires people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.” 

However, with school curricula and other widespread recognitions of Black History Month reducing the occasion to simply the names of the same few “exceptional” Black figures, it calls into question the extent to which “real” and complete education with the ability to inspire substantive change is being executed. Not only do many modern manifestations of Black History Month leave out more “radical” figures, thus failing to paint a completely accurate historical narrative, but they also hold Black populations to an unrealistic standard where they feel that they need to be viewed as “exceptional” to be celebrated. 

To understand which Black figures are deemed “exceptional” and which are not, the overlap between Black History Month and capitalism needs to be examined. As with many other celebrations in the United States, Black History Month has become increasingly capitalist in nature. Many corporations have profited off of Black History Month by creating campaigns and advertisements meant to demonstrate “advocacy” and increase business. Though Black History Month could be considered just another holiday that has become commercialized there is one key difference: This is a festivity meant to celebrate and recognize the history and humanity of Black people, yet it is being exploited to further a corporation’s profits. The implications of this exploitation are even more grim considering this country’s long history of economically exploiting Black people. Black History Month is meant to slowly but surely make amends for a history of abuse, yet it is currently being used to increase profit. Furthermore, many of these campaigns supposedly “celebrating” Black History Month imply that Black history is only worth spotlighting if it will somehow contribute to advancing American corporations and capitalism at large.

This widespread notion that deems it acceptable to economically exploit and reduce Black people to the products of their labor also extends to the Black History Month lessons taught in schools. With many curricula focusing solely on Black inventors and how often their products are used in society today, it (even if inadvertently) pushes a message that Black history is only worth mentioning if it contributed to furthering a largely white, capitalist society. 

The impact of pushing this narrative is profound, especially on younger students. It works to promote a harmful notion of Black exceptionalism, where Black “success stories” are foregrounded because they fit a capitalist definition of success and imply there is only one way that Black people can be “productive” and “useful” members of society. This narrative suggests to Black students that to have their personal existence celebrated and upheld, they need to be “exceptional.” The repetitive Black History Month lessons present in schools perpetuate a narrative that Black people have to be the exception and “better than” in order to have their accomplishments and humanity recognized. 

However, breaking away from pushing this notion of Black exceptionalism is challenging in many classrooms, as schools across the country are now also seeing countless attacks from state legislatures on what topics surrounding race can and cannot be mentioned. A 2022 New York Times article chronicled how teachers had to alter their history curriculums to comply with new state laws banning “Critical Race Theory” or statements that allude to concepts of racial privilege or oppression. In the wake of this new legislation from various state governments, developing new Black history curricula that is more expansive, focusing on more than “exceptional” Black figures is difficult.

A notable example of a legislative move to control the narrative of Black history occurred when the College Board altered their AP African American Studies curriculum, removing the names of dozens of Black figures associated with Black queerness and feminism, after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis criticized the course for not being in compliance with Florida’s anti-Critical Race Theory legislation. Decisions like these by state governments and other political officials work to push a whitewashed and “colorblind” history, promoting a narrative where the systemic and longstanding oppression of Black people does not have to be fully recognized or confronted by non-Black people. 

While some acknowledgements and celebrations of Black History Month in the United States do offer up new perspectives and educational narratives, many figures and events—from the destruction of Seneca Village to Martin Luther King’s “My dream has turned into a nightmare” interview (where, contrasting conservative politicians who use his legacy to justify racist legislation, he called the United States government the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”)—are still excluded from widespread observances. With current legislation policing mentions of race in schools and workplaces, it is easier said than done to simply ask teachers and schools to implement more comprehensive curriculums. However, in our day-to-day, actions that work to promote more expansive understandings of Black history can work to counter problematic messaging.

Taking time to independently learn about neglected moments in Black history or how widespread Black histories may be morphed to fit more “palatable” narratives are small steps to break away from a narrative that spotlights the same few people. At its core, Black History Month is not meant to foreground solely “exceptional” Black people or present Black narratives in a way that “makes sense” to the broader population. Rather, Black History Month should be used as a time to meaningfully reflect on the authentic contributions, culture, and history of all Black people, even if it is not deemed to be “profitable” or “special” or if it is uncomfortable. Discomfort is inevitable, even essential, when fully understanding and processing Black history, and to ignore this fact is to ignore the essential meaning of Black History Month.