[Reflection is a powerful tool in learning. Here are my observations and ideas after teaching a five-week unit on Black History]
Creativity creates possibilities
Identify ideas worth nurturing
And be unafraid to fail
Trust the voice within,
Because without that
your thoughts will never escape
“Thoughts at 1:47 P.M. on Thursday, February 21st”
I decided to teach Black History through the lens of language and art. A bit scared before I began, not because I’m not black- I’m way past that-but more so for the fact that I was never taught Black History. This is where the problem begins.
To be clear, Black history is American history. But I can’t shake the feeling that Black History has been whitewashed, or reduced to a notable two to three activists. I wondered why.
In Pennsylvania, 96% of educators are white. The Keystone State is not alone with this top-heavy percentage, which means that in curriculums throughout the country, the content is unbalanced. At the end of high school, I could tell you that Dr. King had a Dream and Rosa refused to relinquish her seat. We analyzed King’s words, realizing how repetition reeled us in, or how powerful the use of the pause is. I knew slaves had been brought to Jamestown. I was told how Harriet Tubman escaped and did not do so alone. I know I was not alone with this surface-level knowledge. Textbooks were our teachers because the content made some educators uncomfortable; even though there is great knowledge to be found when stepping outside of our comfort zone.
Why did I not read any poetry or short stories from James Baldwin? Why didn’t we discuss the root of Malcolm X’s anger? How did I not know that the Black Panther Party started the Free Breakfast for School Children Program? Why was it that I didn’t know about “redlining” and the blatant disregard of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 until last year?
I was disappointed in myself. Additionally, I was saddened by the school system.
Eradicating racism is a monumental task. When a student asked me, “Mr. Brian, why is it that I feel like we’ve been set up to lose?” I had to take a long pause before I responded. Through the words of James Baldwin, Dr. King, Malcolm X, T’ai Freedom Ford, the Black Panthers, and Bree Newsome, she was able to draw her own conclusions. All I could think of was a Baldwin quote I heard the week before: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.” That’s the most I could say.
Teaching is transformative. What we’re taught matters. I remind myself of this.
We finished our unit on a note of hope. Hope and steady action- a remedy I will preach to every pupil that walks into my classroom community until I retire.
Black History does not stop now that we’re in March. Black History is American History. And we all continue to make history, with each word we utter and with each proactive step we take, because as the brilliant Zora Neale Hurston once said: “The present is an egg laid by the past with the future inside of its shell.”