February 04, 2006

what's wrong with black history month

Obviously i'm coming at this topic from a perspective that isn't all that common--mom of woman-to-be of color, white (not including the Sicilian ;-) ) wife of a black man living in America, the south even, south east to be precise--not too extraordinary; not your every day thing either.

you can say that's a disclaimer; you can say them's the facts, jack. either way. all I'm really trying to figure out is why black history month bothers me--and why it bothers me that it bothers me.

First, let's talk about what's good about Black History Month. Obviously, the incorporation into a sorely lacking public school curriculum when it comes to the accomplishments of an entire group of Americans whose contributions have been largely overlooked in favor of a distorted image of homogeny. Really Important Contributions, one might say, by people who were once Not Free (AKA enslaved) in the aforementioned country, and in the not-so-distant past--making these contributions all the more meaningful.

So, good goal: Teach the little children that black americans (contrary to what Broadcast Mainstream Media & Advertising have done their best to infuse into our children's growing brains) have done more than play sports and music, light fires, and loot. Who knew?

Inventors, physicians, astronauts, executives, artists--lots of Smart Successful People who these same little children never saw in mainstream curriculum, on their local news channels, in the newspapers, or on the bookshelves at the library.

Given that reality, I see lots of good reasons for schools to "celebrate" Black History Month.

As a mom, I don't.

My experience is that Black History Month has become a 30-day paranoia immersion period for the white children rather than a learning experience about our culture and shared history.

Let's look at it another way.

Jenna has white friends--and I mean Nordic white. Jenna has friends of color (all different shades and ethnicities). But the poor white kids don't quite know what to do when black history month comes around.

And i don't blame them. Here they've been, playing along for years without distinction, except for the occasional summer tan contest, in which "peach" and "brown" have always been the closest crayola colors to the real deal, so that's what the children have naturally labeled each other's skin hues.

Along comes a school "celebration" that alerts our children to their differences and explains that sometimes children of different backgrounds (EMPHASIS on the Black and White during this special in-class intervention) have a hard time playing together, but that the color of our skin shouldn't make a difference. AND NOW: Let us All Focus On the Color Of Our Skins for the Next 30 Days.

Thank you for making an issue out of what we as parents (our friends and us) believe is a non-issue.

Put into practical purposes, here's a story from 2 hours ago. We're at a friend's house tonight, we moms are hanging out while Jenna plays with her friends of four years. The kids get into a conflict over some x-random thing. And out of the friend's mouth:

"I think maybe we're having trouble playing together because I'm white and she's black."

We look at each other with a sly smile, yah--that isn't even her own sentence structure, let alone the way the kids have ever described one another. Any correlation between the book report due next week on a Role Model of choice for Black History Month?

A similar uncharacteristic exchange happened with another of Jenna's friends of many years last week. Again, the homework topic: African American Heroes.

The peach kids don't know if they're supposed to say Black as in "Black History Month" or "African American" as in "Your Favorite African American Heroes."

And so, forced symantics enter their world of "peach" and "brown" -- shades of the same family, more similar than different. Our childrens' variations on a theme are replaced with learned symantic segregation.

Like any good idea, Black History Month needs to evolve in order to remain relevant and positive-purposed. How about taking the combined knowledge base of the many resources around Black History Month and incorporate it into various curriculum approaches -- resulting in an HONEST, overall look at American history, one that does not exclude, but includes.

How about we drop the 30-day rehab sensitivity training intensive for elementary school kids and replace it with real WORK on the part of the adults shaping public education and classroom curriculum into the future.

How about peach and brown?

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Curtis said...

It is so odd to run across your post today--we've been having discussions about black and white all week. I am a homeschool mom, but Arthur (6) read in the paper that it was Black History Month.

We have talked history of slavery in the US--the start of racism? We have talked about biology--Arthur wants to know if the insides of bodies come in different colors too? I didn't plan on having a black histroy curriculum per se, because I have been including a diverse crowd in our lessons anyway--everyone from poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar to Abbe Hoffman--but this week's discussions opened up a new idea to me--how do we teach our children to celebrate diversity and to blind themselves to difference. My discomfort comes from saying yes that is an apple and yes that is an orange and they are both fruits---and because they are fruits we treat them exactly the same--it isn't true of fruit (who ever heard of orange pie?) and it isn't true of people. Any woman with a stroller can tell you that discrimination exists--every person not with a stroller will get waited on first in 90% of the world. We are one of three white families on our street, one of ten in neighborhood of one hunfred and people have actually asked me why I live here. Black and White. We chose our neighborhood because we liked the house, we liked living close to downtown, we liked the idea of raising kids that have actually seen a person of color. In our city there is a fairly strict, if unspoken, color barrier--We chose to ignore it. But we have to actively ignore it, and other discriminating behaviors. How do we teach our kids? I am still looking for a good answer?

Jeneane Sessum said...

Thank you for the comment. I appreciate and understand everything you say here. I wish I had the answer. I really do. I would say "by example" is the best way, but the forces stacked up against just being ourselves are pretty forceful.

Tiffany M. Arnold said...

I will say this, growing up as an African-American in a predominately white environment -- where black history month really amounted to a brief readings on Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King's dream -- I have always felt that I was missing something by not having a real black history month -- let alone some sort of inclusion of black history in the school's curriculumn, period.

Growing up (and even as a grown woman, though to a lesser extent) I have always faced the whole "you act white....you're not black enough" thing from my own people. However, it wasn't until I went through college that I was able to learn about the history of African-Americans and blacks throughout the diaspora.

For me, these courses did more than reject the already negative portrayals in mainstream media. What they did was teach me (and the other non-blacks in the class...and blacks, for that matter) that black people are not all the same.

I am frustrated that that is a message not being better taught in the school system, and I wonder how things might have been had I had learned that lesson during my pre-college years.

I will provide examples from my own life experience:

-I can recall episodes in grade school, kindergarten, where a student made the black kids pay "rocks" (our ficiticious form of money) to use the slide.The reason: Because we were black.

-That same year, had a seperate student call me the N-word.

-Having to explain to the non-white girls that there was nothing wrong with your hair. That it was supposed to be 'knappy.'

There's a great book, "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in The Cafeteria" -- I'm sure that's the title-- by Beverly Tatum. It's not at all about Black History Month, but she does a great job at explaining the importance of racial identity and why it's relevant for EVERYBODY (e.g. not just African Americans).

OK, this is along post (sorry). I am officially stepping down from my soap box.

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