Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Readers Response: Black History Month

I’ve been here 350 years but you’ve never seen me.
~James Baldwin

Black History month has provided an opportunity for another reader response. Today, I wrote the following reply to a review of The Listeners by Gloria Whelan at Rhapsody in Books:

Teachers and librarians,

While this book looks lovely please remember that children need contemporary and fun books about black people. Black History should encompass more than slavery.

You say Black History Month and most kids think slavery and school lessons. The last thing they think is fun. We’ve made plenty of history since the Civil War.

And while I don’t want to scare children, I’m not sure I want children focusing on happy times during slavery. If we’re going to talk about slavery as a way to teach a lesson then we need to be clear why it was ugly and I think we can do that without playing up slaves laughing and dancing.

Yes, February is Black History Month and like many of my friends, I have ambivalent feelings about the month. I didn’t plan any special events or columns for either blog. I’m black 365 days a year. I invite readers all year long to recognize the contributions of black folks and at the tender age of forty-five this year (2/9 in case anyone is wondering) I’ve grown weary of the rehashing of the usual suspects. Before you say my remark is blasphemous or irreverent let me explain.

Black history doesn’t start and end with slavery or Civil Rights but every child in public school at least is indoctrinated with tales of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Mary McCloud Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Madame C.J. Walker and W.E.B DuBois during the month of February.

What would happen if we asked the average child if they knew who Mae Jemison, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Carol Ann-Marie Gist or Dr. Ben Carson is? Could you answer me if I asked you who Dr. Charles Drew, Clara Howard, Bessie Smith or Dudley Randall was?

Okay, so you’re thinking, “Well educate us.” I did think about writing a post about why we need to educate children and adults about recent historical black figures and relevant contemporary figures and then I opted not to. Why? I’m going to call it
minority fatigue. I’m tired. I’m tired of being the default spokesperson. I’m tired of the task of teaching folks about black people and other POC issues that they could very well learn on their own if they’re interested. I didn’t wait for someone else to sound a clarion call for me to recognize the world is larger than my own backyard. I sought out what I think matters. I asked questions and made it my responsibility to learn.

It is impossible to pretend that you are not heir to, and therefore, however inadequately or unwillingly, responsible to, and for, the time and place that give you life.
~James Baldwin

Those who went before us didn’t struggle and die for us to revere them but for us to continue to achieve and to build a legacy for future generations so I’m doing what I can and my work doesn’t begin and end in February so when I read the umpteenth book review about slavery, I groan. I don’t want us to forget. But it’s been more than 300 years, people. It’s time to update what you know about your fellow Americans.

What does Black History Month mean to you? Do you only revisit slave narratives and Civil Rights? Can you name any iconic figures not associated with these standard time periods?


Jennifer, Snapshot said...

A great book profiling a contemporary African American (with not a whole lot of emphasis on the fact that he is African American -- is the 2009 THE FROG SCIENTIST.

Great post. I agree with your thoughts, and love it when my own (white) children read contemporary works featuring African American characters just like them.

susan said...

Hi Jennifer,

I saw The Frog Scientist on the Cybils list. It is on my teetering TBR.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Color Online said...

Reader at Readers Against WhiteWashing wrote:

I agree that it is very difficult to find a good mix of books for black children that do not leave us mired in slavery. I read for my grandson's 2nd grade class and they began to respond, every time there was a black person on the cover of a book, by asking, "Was he a slave?" followed by "How did he die? Was he killed?" As a result, I've held back ... See Moreon reading some excellent books, just to make sure that they weren't overwhelmed. ~Wilhelmina

rhapsodyinbooks said...

You wrote:

"every child in public school at least is indoctrinated with tales of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Mary McCloud Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Madame C.J. Walker and W.E.B DuBois during the month of February."

Personally, I don't see much happening except MLK. But that's not the main point here.

I disagree that it is your job to educate non PsOC about PsOC. I think it is the job of non PsOC to educate themselves about people and events involving only people who look just like they do. Yes, it is unfortunate that this happens mainly in just one month of the year rather than being integrated (so to speak) into the "regular" curriculum. But as for me, I'll take one month at this time; it's better than no months and having ONLY "regular" curriculum (focusing on "real" Americans).

I agree though that all these niche months for blacks and women and latinos and Asians, etc. ad infinitum are crazy though. I would like to see a revival of the movement to stop saying white men are the norm and that everybody else goes into a niche for just one month a year!

Color Online said...

Hey Jill,

I don't think it's my job either. When I worked with librarians and teachers, and what I see on blogs and in articles and exhibits during BHM, it is the top 10 I listed. And if children get lessons these are the usual figures. They might not get them all but I'm pretty sure if you asked about the ones I mentioned those who are recent figures most students and too many teachers wouldn't have a clue.

Ask a public librarian what they have on the shelves and look at the displays, and you'll find the some order of the top 10.

Color Online said...

I think I missed your point or I wasn't clear. I do think it is my responsibility to push back against others' narrowly defining my experience and identity.

Shelia said...

While growing up I asked questions about our history and was fortunate that my parents encouraged me and made sure I knew about things that weren't found in text books. Because truthfully, one month is not enough to learn about all of the contributions Blacks have made in this country. I've been tasked to speak at Black History programs this month and I chose on purpose to talk about Black women who may not be as well known as others. I am also highlighting some of those women on my blog this month.

Our past is rich with many achievers. We are riding on the backs of those who paved the way. Thank God for our ancestors who didn't allow the obstacles of racism to stop them from achieving great things.

I'll be posting a suggested reading list about Blacks (past & present) on my blog next week. Most of the books can be found at local libraries.

Black history is 365 days not just one month. In fact, we are living history.

Color Online said...

Amen from the choir.

Thank you so much for choosing to speak about the lesser knowns. On my way to your blog.

April said...

I agree with you, Black History month should be every day of the year, not just Feb.

There's a great book on education and BHM called Beyond Heroes and Holidays.

I student-taught history in high school, we don't really do Black History Month in the NY U.S. history curriculum. There's just not time for it, rather while I taught we learned about what PoC were doing during a specific time period - i.e. - 1920s Harlem Renaissance, also talked about PoC during unit on Westward Expansion - how Native Americans had their land stolen, how Chinese were used and abused for the railroad. I think a great teacher incorporates the contributions of women and PoC throughout the year, because it's not like these people fade in and out of history.

In my teacher preparatory program we were taught to take a multicultural approach to teaching history and discouraged from only talking about PoC during BHM, as this marginalizes students of color, and makes them think they are only in history for one month of the year, when really, history is way more than dead white dudes.

Anyways, just wanted to say kudos to your post, and to anyone looking for a primer on history which is more than dead white rich guys, check out A People's History of the US by Howard Zinn, he's got a lot of PoC and women in his book.

LiteracyCenter.Net said...

Your blog always makes me think and this post is no different.

There are so many things I don't know about Black or African-American history and as an educator and student, I am always excited to learn.

Last Thanksgiving, I wanted to make sweet potato pie so I read everything I could find about George Washington Carver. I wrote about it on Twitter and a young woman laughed at me: "I am well versed in George Washington Carver and the soy bean".

In Florida, this year, schools got bad marks for not teaching enough Black history. I can't even imagine how it is possible to leave out historically significant people or information when you are teaching history but it does happen.

So, those of you who are well versed need to be aware of the children who have not yet learned. We need to start with their interests and make history so exciting that they feel they are living it.

I agree this is not something we do during a special month. It is something we do from birth and something we should be doing in schools from the very beginning.

Thanks again for your great ideas!


Color Online said...


Next time you want to make a sweet potato pie ask a black woman who cooks. I put my foot in my sweet potato pie. I don't bake cookies or cakes, but a sweet potato pie, not Thanksgiving without it. :-)

Linda Chavis said...

This is an important thread and all have made great points. We of color need to be the ones who talk to our children about black folks from MLK to our grandparents who may or may not have made a difference in the world but in our lives.

Color Online said...

Thanks April and Linda.

Jodie said...

In the UK we don't have anything equivalent to the American focus on black history and I always want to see some more black world history, but if there was a specific month for everything we'd run out of months. I've read a couple of responses about Black History month now and I think I'm agreeing with you when I say it's not necessarily a bad thing to have, but it is a limited way of examining black history. It seems like a case of good intentions, but shaky follow through.

Jessie Carty said...

maybe to celebrate Black History Month we could all find a POC book to donate to our local library? And something, perhaps, they are less likely to have?

Color Online said...

Good idea, Jessie. I don't know if donations can be shelved though.

Might help to simply suggest that the library put up books they do have that are appropriate but normally are not displayed.

MissAttitude said...

As usual, susan you eloquently express how I feel too. I'm tired, I definitely have minority fatigue. I'm getting tired of having to continually tell people (via blog/email whatever) why having YA/MG POC in fiction is important, but at the same time, I know this is important and that helps me push through. At the end of the day, I'm reading and reviewing books which is what I love (you do so much more so i understand why you are tired, I really shouldn't be).

I completely agree that BHM starts with slavery and ends with the Civil Rights Month. I admit I am guilty of doing this during Native American Heritage Month. I haven't reviewed many books about NAs since November. I MUSt fix that.

Black History is a time when I get to learn more about my culture, watch cool documentaries (PBS Love of Liberty comes to mind), read interesting articles (Henrietta Lacks cells) and see psotive images of my people everywhere. It also feels a bit like Christmas, gone all too quick and soon forgotten. I'm reviewing Leaving Gee's Bend this week, i think it offers a nice change of pace from the usaly slavery/civil rights. The first figures that comes to my mind that are not as well-known is Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan. Two of my heroes. As well as Harold Washington (you can tell I'm into politics, haha). Also, Sen. Bruce from Reconstruction (the Senator & the Socialite is a fascinating book).

susan said...

Ari, you are a girl of my dreams. Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan are childhood heroes. I was given Jordan's biography as an 8th graduation gift from a favorite teacher and while I was young when she ran, in middle school, we learned about Chisholm's run for the presidency. I think you know I quote Chisholm all the time.

Thanks for weighing in.