Black History Month Makes Me Mad

Those words popped out of my mouth last night when I brought up the fact that February is Black History month. The reasons it makes me mad may surprise you though.

I’m not mad that we have this month (or Asian-American Heritage month, or Women’s History month, or any other for that matter). I’m mad that we need them. I’ve heard it said – well, why don’t we have a white history month?? The answer is simple- every day of the year and every highlight in our students’ curriculum is white history.

If our history books included the story of Sally Hemings right alongside the wonders of Thomas Jefferson’s Bill or Rights or if the realities of African American life in 1930s America were held side by side to Jesse Owen’s feats at the 1936 Olympics or if our students explored the records of current-day legislators on their votes for or against the Civil Rights Act of 1965 – then maybe we wouldn’t need a Black History Month.

But, here’s how it really is:

  • In my daughter’s 8th grade ADVANCED ACADEMIC English class (all caps to draw your attention to the fact that these young people have been deemed to have above and beyond critical thinking skills), the book “To Kill a Mockingbird” was read without a single mention or in-class discussion of the “N” word that is used multiple times in the book. My daughter came away from the reading with very little understanding of the significance of the word and how people used it and use it now. She also just came away from the experience just “happy things aren’t like that anymore”. They were reading this book in the context of multiple black teenagers being shot by police officers – an excellent time, in my opinion to have class discussions on justice and injustice in the American legal system historically, and how literature can help us to navigate sticky, tough topics.
  • Another daughter did a project on James Armistead, a slave who ended up spying for the Americans and was granted his freedom after the war. I now can’t remember the words she used to describe his situation, but it was obvious that the curriculum put more emphasis on praising the white people in power for releasing him from his slavery as if that was the ultimate good they could have done, instead of pointing out the realities of his situation and millions of other slaves at that time. When I went in to speak to the teacher about it, my concerns were only allayed because of the extra work she was doing to add layers to the curriculum – reminding the students about the realities of what it meant to be a slave, that when the Revolutionary War was fought, the same people shouting for liberty and fighting against taxation without representation were very often the same people holding other human beings as slaves. But she was doing this on her own and it wasn’t included in the curriculum.
  • In my educational history, I can remember learning about maybe 5 important African-American figures in our history. Here they are (isn’t it ridiculous??):
    • Harriet Tubman
    • George Washington Carver
    • Frederick Douglass
    • Jesse Owens
    • Martin Luther King, Jr.

Those are just some tiny examples of why we still need a Black History Month. I can’t help but think if we – and by we, I mean parents, educators, legislators, political leaders, religious leaders, all of us – had done a better job at telling the truth about our history, we wouldn’t be having the conversation in Virginia that we’re having today. Our governor participated in a racist activity in med school in the mid 1980s. I can’t help but wonder if the history of blackface had ever come up in an English class or history class or even a drama class, if that event would have happened. It very well could have happened anyway, but in that context, all excuses of ignorance fall away.

I believe that in 2019 all excuses of ignorance should be done away with in any case. We have to do the work now and take advantage of the myriad of resources that are available. There are just no more excuses left for not knowing that blackface is an affront, that a noose is a violent symbol of racist hate, that the “N” word has a complicated legacy and should never be thrown around -especially not by a white person, that fried chicken, watermelon, and monkeys all have racially-charged meanings, and more.

So, that’s why I’m mad about Black History Month. I’m mad that we need it and I’m mad that some still want to ignore it. Staying mad doesn’t really help anyone though, so I’m trying to follow some people who are leading the way in educating, informing, and building bridges. Some suggestions below:

Books to read (a short list because I need to move on…)

Just Mercy

The Warmth of Other Suns

God’s Very Good Idea

Hidden Figures

The New Jim Crow

People to Follow (again a short list – the laundry calls):

Latasha Morrison

Prop

Lisa Sharon Harper

Equal Justice Initiative

Browncity

Happy Black History Month!!!

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Sheltered: On media exposure and parenting

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how sheltered my kids’ lives are in comparison to how my life was sheltered as a child. I grew up in a fairly strict conservative household that limited tv and movie viewing and book reading to titles with only G or PG rated material, and sometimes even the PG was a little much. Little to no secular music was played in the car or at home.  We watched Gospel Bill and SuperBook instead of the Smurfs and Scooby Doo. I went to a Christian school through middle school so I didn’t get much exposure at all to the popular music of the time.  My kids are growing up a bit differently.  We still limit a bunch of tv and movies, mainly because we don’t have cable! The tv is rarely on. But my kids know the words to several classic rock songs thanks to my husband, and are constantly humming top 40 tunes thanks to the music they hear on the announcements at school.

So, in some ways, my children are less sheltered than I was. But in one way particularly, they are extremely MORE sheltered. What way is this? The News.

Growing up, the evening news was always on the tv from around 5ish until dinner and then back on while dinner clean up was happening. I rarely sat down and watched it with my parents, but I was very aware of things that were happening. I watched the videos of the Rodney King beating, Gulf War SCUD missile strikes, DC protests of all manner, etc.  (Interestingly, somehow I missed the Challenger explosion. Apparently every other kindergartner was watching it, but not me. Maybe I was sick that day? who knows.) But now? Like I said before, we don’t have the tv on much at all. We don’t have cable (mainly a financial decision, not a philosophical one), we haven’t sprung for a roof antenna, and the tv just doesn’t get great reception down in the basement. I don’t have a little tv in the kitchen either. So my kids just don’t really get the exposure to current events like I did. I get the news on my phone, usually during the day while they’re at school and after they’re in bed. Sometimes on the radio – but I usually switch it off in the car when the kids are with me, because it’s usually the only time I have one on one time with them and it’s a good time to talk.

I know they hear about some things at school. For example, my husband and I had not really been talking about the election at home, but my big girls all still knew all about Trump and were fairly flabbergasted at his success. What’s interesting to me is that this sheltering is not intentional. I’m not trying to keep things from them; it’s just that my consumption of media and news is not as public or in front of them as my parents’ was.

I’ve read blog posts and articles about how to handle kids’ anxiety in today’s news world where it seems that some major disaster is happening every few days. I always read these and am like – wait, does my kid even know that happened? Should she know it happened? Just what does my child/teenager need to know about what’s going on? About Black Lives Matter? About the cultural battles being waged over LGBTQ issues? About abortion? About this mass shooting? About that terrorist attack? etc, etc, etc.

I don’t mean to be doing them a disservice by not opening the door to current events.  I also don’t necessarily think they need to know about everything happening – it’s overwhelming for me as an adult to engage with every story. I simply do not have the emotional capacity to handle caring so deeply about all of the major cultural discussions swirling today.

I would love to hear how other parents are handling this issue – are your kids media exposed? Are you intentional about it? Any lessons learned?