What happens during Black History Month?

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Black History Month compels us to face-and teach-a challenging past fraught with brutality and racism. The ramifications of this challenge are almost inconceivably complex. With that in mind we’re re-running a post from 2012 with some nuanced and provocative thoughts from Finnie Coleman.

I was on Facebook today and ran across a post by an old friend. I knew once I read it that I needed to share it here. Finnie is somone I have known since we were young soldiers together. He is now a professor at the University of New Mexico, and someone whose thinking I hold in the deepest regard. In his post Finnie writes as a parent who is struggling with what his very young children are taught as a part of “Black History Month.” My wife and I struggle with some of the very pertinent issues that Finnie raises in the post below. I know that, as teachers, many of you think deeply about this issue, so I am interested in what you all think. Please post some of your thoughts in the comments section. So here it is…

Wisdom from My Children

By Finnie Coleman

This afternoon I came face to face with a demon I have been dreading for many years, long before I had children-a very particular demon. At dinner both my son and daughter began reciting what they had learned in school about Black History Month and slavery. After nearly choking, as I have become better at in recent years, I held my tongue and listened. For those of you who choose to read beyond this point, I should warn you that the story is not pretty-not happy, but important I think. It is perhaps too self-centered…

At dinner tonight Anele began by recounting what she was learning in music class. To my surprise she began singing in a deep voice:

Wade in the Water,
Wade in the Water Children,
God’s gonna trouble the water…

Through this song she and her classmates had learned about slavery and how African Americans had been “made slaves.” How slavery was about making Black people work for other people. I was particularly struck that she seemed especially touched by the idea that “babies would be kidnapped and sold” to other families. It was clear to me that she imagined that these babies were adopted into new families and raised alongside new brothers and sisters. What she had been taught was couched in certain truths, bolstered by time-worn myths, and was absolutely sanitized.

Finnie chimed in that he had been learning about Black people as well-that Black people were forced to give up their seats on the bus. A good man was killed with an arrow (I am assuming this was Dr. King). Finnie was happy to fill in the missing pieces of the story with his special brand of logic that I find hilarious, for example, he concluded that when Blacks were forced to give up their seats they decided never to ride the buses again-like ever. The fact that he LOVES to ride in the back of the Hurry Cane bus was completely lost on him. As I sat listening, I realized that this was the first time I had ever heard Finnie talk about death. A year or so ago Anele first became interested in mortality…I guess it never occurred to me that she might share this with Finnie or that he might learn about death on his own somehow. I was not prepared for him to talk about it so matter-of-factly. So Death and Race decided to come to the table at the same time and I was not ready for either. More than that, I was not ready for the fact that other people would be taking it upon themselves to teach my children about a subject that I have been working so long and hard to prepare to teach them about (the past twenty-six or -seven years). I also realized that many of their peers will not be able to interrogate the skewed history they received this afternoon and how many of them would not go home to parents who understand the true power and beauty of the history of people of African descent-and who would be excited about sharing that story with them-let alone actually knowing the story well enough to tell it. All too often, that history is reduced to slavery and perhaps the dramatic struggle for justice that followed slavery. More precisely, that history is presented as a deficit model that casts Blacks as strugglers against a nameless faceless institution as opposed to an unlikely triumph over other men and women who had names and faces-faces set against them…lined with the wretchedness borne of debasing others in the name of greed and personal gain. Instead of a more nuanced rendering of this epic and uplifting struggle, my children have been taught in an afternoon that their ancestors were slaves and little more than that. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I am especially interested in what the little “non-Black” children in Anele’s classroom took form the lesson. How will their parents explain this to them? How will they feel about what they have learned and will learn about Black History? Today many of them were introduced to a discourse that will dog them for rest of their lives. How will they be prepared for that discourse? Who will prepare them and how well?

I will of course do my best to correct errors and shortcomings in this story over time, but my job is made much more difficult by an educational system that is eager to include “Black History Month Activities,” but does not have nor seem to be interested in gaining mastery of the tale, in learning to tell that story in all its power and glory…and pathos. It is a hard story to tell even if you know it well. It has its tragedies and horrors. How will I teach Finnie about lynching? How will I explain Jim Crow to Anele? How long will it take for me to parse through the Civil Rights Movement? Will they understand the first time I introduce them to Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston? What will they think of Bert Williams and to what degree will they despise Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer? Will I be able to fully convey the intellectual debauchery that was social Darwinism? Will they understand the abject irony of “The White Man’s Burden?” What about the conversation between Wheatley and Jefferson? Will Bacon’s Rebellion, the American Revolution, the Republican Betrayal, and the Bicentennial make them understand any better the intricate and complex cycles that run through Black History, African American Culture, “Negro” Literature…but then again, I return to the other kids in the room. What were they taught at dinner tonight?

I am proud of one thing-even if Doris and I did it inadvertently-we have given Finnie and Anele the very best defense that one can have against misinformation-we have taught them to question what they have been taught-even if we are the teachers. When I sang the lines of the song along with Anele she was astonished that I knew the song. While trying to explain to her what “troubling the waters” meant, I realized that I made a mistake-I had put off teaching them because I did not think they would be interested or able to understand. I was wrong and I have to believe that I am alone in this error. It was sobering to think that I will spend a great deal of time in coming years countering what my children have been taught by even the most well-meaning teachers-and then obviously not just in subjects related to race, gender, or difference. I hope that I am up to the job…

I would really be interested in comments about this…