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…)
People to Follow (again a short list – the laundry calls):
Happy Black History Month!!!