Many of adults will remember watching the popular TV mini-series Roots, based on a book by Alex Haley. After viewing the series, Americans of all races learned the importance of discovering their ancestral roots. February is Black History Month, and a good occasion to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to American life.
Here are some suggestions to commemorate the month-long observance, with a focus on the years 1930-1970.
- Author Alex Haley popularized genealogy for people of all races with the publication of the 1976 book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which details seven generations of African-American family life. Define the word genealogy (the history of a family). Ask: Why do people study their family trees? Did you ever trace your own family’s immigration history? Invite a guest speaker to talk about the avocation of studying one’s ancestral roots.
- Define “soul food.” Name some authentic soul food from the Deep South, e.g., cornbread, black-eyed peas, collard greens, fried chicken. Sample popular desserts such as rice pudding, pound cake, bread pudding, or sweet potato pie.
- Listen to or read excerpts from the audio book My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. by Coretta Scott King. Ask: Were you involved in any civil rights demonstrations in the 1950s or 1960s? What do you remember about Dr. King?
- Sing the anthem for African Americans, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. Ask: What is the song’s message?
- Invite a gospel music choir from a local church to perform some African-American gospel songs, or listen to a recording of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
- Enjoy some comedy from America’s favorite dad, Bill Cosby. (Options: watch episodes of The Bill Cosby Show, comedy recordings, read his book on fatherhood) Ask your participants if they remember Cosby’s Jell-0 Pudding commercials.
- Study the lyrics to Louis Armstrong’s pop song hit “What a Wonderful World” and talk about how Armstrong brought joy to people through his music.
- Watch the inspiring 1963 movie Lilies of the Field, starring Sidney Poitier. Poitier was the first African American to win an Academy Award as Best Actor, for this film.
- Listen to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Challenge your group to whistle the tune, which became the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters. Recall some memories of their antics on the basketball court.
- Invite your group to learn about some basic tap dance steps, in honor of tap dancing pioneer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Show some tap dance segments from some of his films, including a variety of Shirley Temple films and Stormy Weather, an all-black musical that featured his dancing.
- Display posters of the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Enjoy some of her recordings, including her 1938 hit song “A Tisket, A Tasket.” Discuss why the “First Lady of Song” is considered a music legend. (Hint: She won 13 Grammy Awards)
- Invite a historian to share the story of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. Pass around historic photographs of the first black military aviator unit. Ask: What common values (love of country, heroism, duty, honor, service) were important to the Greatest Generation, regardless of skin color?
- Share some poetry from Langston Hughes (see “Dreams” and other poems) or Maya Angelou. Ask: What was inspiration for the poems?
- Reminisce about black baseball legends (e.g., Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays) and their impact on the game. A local library may have a short biographical film to view. Display props such as a Louisville slugger bat and old Topps baseball cards.
BLACK HISTORY QUIZ
Challenge your group with a quiz on notable African Americans.
- This black entertainer was a member of the Rat Pack, which included Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Sammy Davis, Jr.
- She was the first African American elected to the U.S. Congress. Shirley Chisholm (from New York)
- He made the song “Unforgettable” famous in 1952. Nat “King” Cole
- This singer/actress is known for her signature tune “Stormy Weather.” Lena Horne
- He was the first African American to join the U.S. Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall
- This runner won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Jesse Owens
- This blind black pianist and singer performed the hits “Georgia on My Mind” and “Hit the Road, Jack.”Ray Charles
- This singer/actress played a nurse on the 1960s TV sitcom Julia. Diahann Carroll
- His hit song “The Twist” turned into a dance craze. Chubby Checker
- He was dubbed the King of Calypso, after his big hit “The Banana Boat Song.” Harry Belafonte
“CELEBRATE BLACK HISTORY MONTH” written by Sue Hansen. © 2009 ElderSong Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
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