On Being Non White during Black History Month

Its that most wonderful time of the year in the education business.. . Black History Month.  I love the history of my people and how we have helped to mold and change the landscape of this great country.  I, however, dislike being black during Black History Month in my school building.

There are 84 certified/licensed educators in my building.  Five of us are black, 4 are Hispanic (and proud of that fact) 4 are Hispanic (but are pretending they aren’t) and one is Asian. 14 educators out of 84 in a school where more than 60% of the student population ISN’T white.  This, of course, means, we’re the “experts on all “assigned ethnic monthly celebrations”.  Mrs. R. complained back in September about being the expert on Hispanic Heritage month, now, apparently, its my turn.

It started innocently enough.  I’m sitting in the teachers’ lounge eating my fruit salad and listening to the guy on the television talk about the snow that refuses to stop coming when a teacher plops down beside me and says,

Maybe you can help me.  I’m looking for a recent video on the life and times of Nelson Mandela. Do you have anything?

My mind was formulating a response like “why they hell would I, a Middle School Science teacher,  have a video on Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and what does that  have to do with Black History Month in AMERICA?” but, I simply took a nibble of my cantaloupe and said, “check in the library.  I am not aware of anything more recent than perhaps 5 or 6 years ago.  If there’s nothing there, may I suggest Netflix or PBS?”

She was so excited, I’d helped somehow. (Never mind the fact that this is the sort of thing she, as a teacher shouldn’t need help with) I’ve become accustomed to the “apparent” correlation between the color of my skin and my expertise on all things African or African American. I mentioned this to Mrs. R. one day and we decided to “teach a lesson” on Black History.Black History Timeline

Same teachers lounge, different day.  Mrs. R. comes in, sits across from me.  I’m sitting with “the majority”.

Mrs. Stone, I know you know this.  I am trying to get a copy of the video series on blacks in Mexico by that guy, you know him, that guy.

I smile at her, glance to my right at the now silence group of people sitting near us. She’s grinning back. I respond happily.

Oh, you mean Henry Louis “Skip” Gates and his PBS series, Black in Latin America“. Excellent for your Spanish AP class!

Yes, yes, him!  I’ve asked the media center several times to get a couple of copies of that series as my students LOVE it.  I had one student last year go home angry at his father, because he realized that they are actually black and papi never told him!

We laugh, glance slightly at the now openly eavesdropping group of women and continue our discussion on one of the greatest documentaries ever produced.  We consider Skip and his issues with the Cambridge police a few years ago, making special note of how his white neighbor didn’t even know he lived on the block and how he got to drink beer with the president after that (ha ha) and how his other PBS series’, Finding your Roots and Wonders of the African World are also fascinating.  We’re discussing Black History without mentioning Booker, WEB, Langston, Martin, Rosa, Malcolm, Harriet, Sojourner, Frederick, Barack, Oprah, Barbara, Ben, Hughie, or Stokey. Shocking.

We talk about how she uses the documentary in her classes to teach the students about heritage and some of the instructional strategies she uses.  It gives me an idea of how to use the same series in a couple of months when I start my genetics unit with the 8th graders. She high fives me and we laugh some more about how great Gates is.

Mrs. R. (very Hispanic with her adorable little self) gets up from the table, comes around and gives me a hug, thanks me for my help, tells me that when she gets a copy of the series, she will share it with me, winks and leaves. The conversation at the table shifts to “black history month projects”.  They better not ask me a damned thing. I dare them. Later that day, the school secretary, also Hispanic, stops me in the office and laughs. Turns out she was sitting in a corner of the lounge during our conversation.

You two are a mess!  Keep up the good work.  Teachers need teaching too!

Sigh. I’m sure I’ll get stopped at least 2 more times before the end of the month about something or another that I only know (why the hell don’t YOU know it) about Blacks in America.  At least one other black teacher is beginning to grumble about it also.  We just keep smiling and recognize our opportunity to teach an adult something they really don’t want to learn.  Payback is a mutha, huh?

Black History Month, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t about being black in America, its about being American and the contributions of ALL Americans to our culture.  Some of this includes how we came to be here and every other place on the planet, same as any other race or culture.  It also includes recent, current and future accomplishments of people of color, the very people we are teaching in our classrooms.  Teachers in particular, MUST stop being insular about “history”.  This is not to say that I, personally, know all there is to know about white people in America, but I do know what you’ve chosen to force down my throat.  

Non whites aren’t going away.  Our history isn’t static and “over there somewhere” while whites were doing “something over here”.  Guess what, we know our history AND YOURS, better than you do.  We have to, because unlike you, we aren’t particularly interested in repeating most of it. 

There’s more to Black history than the ancient heroes.  We love them, we have what we have because of them, but, to confine who we are and what we represent as a people to one month, is tiresome.  Mr. Woodson would agree that its time to acknowledge contributions, old and new, on a daily basis.  (You DO know who Carter G. Woodson was, right?) May I suggest Tom Joyner’s website, Black America Web, and his “Little Known Black History Facts“presented DAILY.. . (you know who Tom Joyner is, right?) (sigh)

Speaking of ignorance of history: I’ve watched the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics and realized, I don’t know a damned thing about the early history of Russia.  I’ll be remedying that issue soon.

See how easy that is?