Thursday, February 11, 2021

Black History Month for Dummies

I already know that provocative title will antagonize the very folks I need to read this piece, but I am willing to risk it for the point of stating the obvious:


I can sing it, if you like, but I know that will turn everyone else just trust me on this. I know that there is a historical narrative that suggests its singular importance is to ensure that Black children (and adults who missed a lot depending on when and where they went to school) would learn about the contributions and achievements of the African people who were brought to or emigrated to this country. And that would be correct. But the point was also to educate other non-Black folks about those same contributions and achievements in case there were any doubts about such things.

So here we are, in 2021, debating the right of parents in Utah (of all places) to participate in Black History Month. Like, I need to know, are they suggesting that the month of February is optional and those 28 days can be made up at a later time and date? Of course not, but I guess that's why I'm questioning how/why/who/what/when/where do they do that?

I sat down to opine on the matter on my Facebook page, but it triggered a memory that I had not exactly suppressed, but one that I now realize was pretty significant. It was from my high school days, which some of you know were...not my favorite. The only worse period of my life was middle school and because therapy is expensive, methodical, and takes too long, y'all can feel free to send more wine and chips to help me process the pain after you read this.

But before I delve into the past, I need to update that the school in question, Maria Montessori Academy (and yes, we're going to touch on that aspect too), has rescinded that policy and will not allow parents to opt out. I may decide to check in later this month to see how that worked out for them, but if you read the story in the Post, it will shed some light on the history of the request and how the situation on the ground changed from last week. 

Now let's go back in time to when your favorite Busy Black Woman was a girl starting school in the late 1970s in DC Public Schools when Black History Week was expanded to Black History Month. What I remember, which is why it merits this mention, was that we learned the basics: slavery, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, bus boycott, Rosa Parks, MLK, and Jesse Jackson. And Jackson was bonus material because at the time, he was the most prominent Black person in the universe. I must note that I was in Pre-Kindergarten at the time, so that was the extent of what one would have expected a four year old to understand. 

Because DC was a Chocolate City on the cusp of electing an activist Black mayor and nearly everybody in DCPS at the time was a Black educator (including my Mom and two Aunts), we got a LOT of Black History all year round. The same could not be said for my Catholic middle school, but it was located in an all-Black middle class neighborhood, so they had no choice but to be down. Even the white hippie priest who taught us religion went out of his way to incorporate Black culture into the Mass (like for real because he came in one Monday after watching Lilies of the Field and all I can say is Amen).

So where things changed for me was in high school, where for the first time, I was in an integrated environment. In 1988 during the second half of my sophomore year, our principal suggested making our in-school Black History Month program after-school optional. And while her reasons were practical and generically race-neutral, that was not the spirit in which it was received.

A few random, but relevant details: My high school was located in Maryland, just over the DC line, in an adjoining county. My high school was integrated, like most Catholic schools had been, but there had been more white students than others prior to the mid to late 80s during my matriculation. Unbelievable to anyone who lives there now, but back then, Prince George's County was more rural than suburban, so that meant school cancellations due to inclement weather were common. That year, there was a lot of snow in January which resulted in about six to eight snow days, or nearly two full weeks of missed school. Thus the dilemma for the principal and the school community was how to make up those lost instruction days without canceling Spring Break or adding on a week of school in May. The decision was made to alter our daily schedule and to move a few of the special school assemblies that would have taken place during the school day to after school. On its face, very straight-forward, right?

But then there were the devilish details beginning with the fact that one of the days that was counted as lost was MLK Day. And it was mentioned that the loss of that day, in addition to President's Day, needed to be included in the make up days. In DC MLK Day was a mandatory day off on January 15 until it became an established federal holiday; now that I was in a different state and county, MLK had to be added to the school calendar. That happened for the first time in 1987 and now it had become problematic because of the snow.

There was also the fact that our school had begun to undergo rather dramatic demographic shifts with each incoming class, so there were a lot of adjustments...some of which I alluded to here. I also must mention that there was only one Black teacher at the school the entire time and how strongly I suspected that most of the Black girls were intentionally tracked. Not that those facts imply that it was a hostile racist environment (because that was not the case), but as we know, prejudice and unconscious bias aren't necessarily overt acts.

Therefore, when it was suggested that the Black History Program could take place after school so that it would not interfere with the new schedule, my militant little ears heard that Black History Month was an extraneous activity. It was optional, but the in-school science fair assembly, weekly Mass, and the honors assembly were non-negotiable aspects of school life. Nor was our annual May Day celebration, our in-school club activities, or Big Sister/Little Sister Day rescheduled.

I was by no means a student leader, so even though I definitely floated the idea of some kind of in-school protest, I was not the only person who suggested it. Nor was I the only student whose parents vocally expressed their disappointment with the decision, and knowing my Mother...

The decision was reversed and the program was held. I don't remember what concession we had to accept in exchange, but as I have mentioned in the past, it was one of several accommodations that probably led to the nuns throwing up holy hands and closing the whole school down a few years later.

Most of you know that in another past life, I taught History on the University level, and to say that more than 75% of my students were amazed to learn so much in my classes is not a humble brag, but a truism that many students got no more than the same basic stuff I was taught in elementary school. Most of them could name most of the Very Important Black People (VIBP) that had been written into the curriculum since the 90s, yet almost none of them could explain why some of those people were significant. My favorite example of that is always George Washington Carver--they all knew about how he found hundreds of uses for the peanut, but none of them knew why that mattered.

For what it is worth, if you don't know, it isn't because you didn't have an in-school Black History program. It is because all you had was that in-school Black History Program. Or because you only got to see documentaries about VIBP on Sundays in February. Or because Black parents don't want their children chosen to dramatize segregation and racism for poorly designed school demonstration projects. And these days, everybody is afraid to read any literature in which the N-word is used. 

Not even if you grew up in a Blackity Black household where there was a stack of EBONY and JET magazines, which you religiously read (but also used for your annual Black History Month collages) or had a Black encyclopedia set you loved to read for pleasure. So when I tell you that I was a repository of random Black History facts with the trophies to prove it, color me shocked when I realized that even my understanding of George Washington Carver and his work with peanuts was lacking. And you can't get that much depth in 28 days or in a 90 minute school assembly.

That brings me to the wasted hour I spent reading the 1776 Commission Report this past MLK weekend. Mind you, I already knew it was trash based on who commissioned it and the fact that it was literally the most significant thing Trump did other than foment insurrection during his last days in office. Quite possibly the capstone of alternative facts, this report illuminates the spectrum of opinions that reveal why my high school principal and those parents in Utah felt justified in sidelining Black History as optional. On the one hand, imagine being the well-meaning nun who didn't think her modest proposal was problematic, just practical. On the other hand, imagine being Montessori parents--fully invested in the philosophy and lifestyle of empowering children to make choices and expecting to receive those same rights as parents. According to the 1776 Commission, we've been demanding too much diversity and change over the past thirty or so years. It has been our insistence on truth-telling that has led to these destructive counter-narratives of America as country still struggling with racism...

Yeah, it is our fault that if you were an ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson's words and accomplishments, the truth that he was a hypocrite who enslaved his own children might be an irreconcilable character flaw. Or that we see poetic justice in these alleged new discoveries at Monticello where the truth has been buried all of these years. Because while this mildly irreverent depiction of Jefferson is entertaining, it doesn't quite compare to this almost 220 year old satirical cartoon.

Imagine having the option to hear the truth. Imagine the luxury of a worldview that can choose whether the Black experience is relevant for 28 days (and imagine having that power to determine the same for other marginalized groups). And the reason for exercising the option not to engage really doesn't have to be articulated because I already know that it unearths inconvenient and less heroic details about your ancestors. Obviously, there are no good reasons to deal with race in Utah--the only state in that western region of the country to allow slavery.

The passage of 30+ years has given me perspective and compassion for my high school principal, but that doesn't mean that she didn't deserve to be called to account for her decision. Hindsight has allowed me to see the situation from her point of view, and until now, I never gave her much credit for accommodating us. I am not giving her credit now for her reversal, because it should not have come to that point (by the way, I don't think we celebrated Women's History Month and this was an all-girls' school). Instead, I appreciate that she had made an error in judgment and took corrective steps. She removed her rose colored glasses, squinted past her privilege, and I'm hoping that she and my peers saw something from whatever performances, skits, factoids, etc. we presented on that program. I hope that it made some kind of lasting impression beyond entertainment.

One loose end to tie up: George Washington Carver's studies of the peanut, sweet potato, and soybeans were to encourage use of those crops to aid in soil enrichment. Cotton, which was the primary cash crop of the time would deplete the land of nutrients, so field rotation allowed for restoration of the soil. Carver's studies found alternative commercial and industrial uses for those crops in addition to food.

Sure, those are details to his story that are not dependent on having a dedicated month to Black achievement. Ideally, Carver's work should be as noteworthy as Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin, or be taught with units about the Depression and its impact on rural America. And we can still highlight his significance during the month of February, along with other Black scientists and inventors such as Lewis Latimer, Garrett Morgan, Ernest Everett Just, Granville T. Woods...

And now perhaps it makes sense why we start with a dedicated month.

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