MLK and Black History Month… Are You Ready?

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Sue Lyons-Joell

As I’m writing this, MLK Day is approaching, and once again I brace myself for the onslaught that is Black History Month (BHM). Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, I think the idea is fabulous – the Eurocentric story of the “founding” of the USA has warped the minds and belief systems of 7+ generations. But it’s the implementation in our schools, in our PSAs, in our media coverage, that is absolutely embarrassing.

Judging from some recent comments to posts at Racialicious and Rachel’s Tavern, the same old arguments against BHM are alive and well: Why isn’t there a white history/white pride month? What about the other minorities? Who’s had it better/worse in the US? Why haven’t African-Americans “advanced” more? And so on and so on. I’m tired of defending the month, because my ambivalence is in the other camp. If you can’t do something well, don’t do it at all. And I suspect that in many schools and other educational avenues in this country, we’re going about this the wrong way.

When I was in school in the 80s, there were the usual nominal efforts to do black history-related assignments in the long stretch between New Years and Lent. I wasn’t the only kid of African-American descent in the grade, but I was the only one in my classes. I remember that a teacher’s eyes would occasionally creep over to me when a historical tidbit was given out. I’m still not sure what that look meant: possibly, “See, did you catch that? That was for you. You’re special.” Or maybe it was supposed to mean, “Wait, did I say that right? Does your “race memory” agree?”

The ridiculous nature of the English assignments sticks with me too (for some reason BHM derailed the English curriculum, but not History). There was a fifth-grade assignment to write journal entries in the first-person voice, essentially proving that we read whatever Afro-centric book we’d chosen. The book I chose was a biography of someone who was a child after Emancipation and had no formal education until adulthood. I have no idea who at this point; that descriptor fits too many people that we hear about in February.

Anyway, I remember being bored witless, and writing, with not a trace of irony, a journal entry that essentially said, “I wish I could learn to read.” The teacher gave me an A. I felt like a fraud. Of course the next year I passed off The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman as a non-fiction book report. In my own defense, I didn’t realize it was fiction until I finished the book. The English teacher didn’t notice at all. Another fraud, another A.

Now I’m leaping ahead to placing my own daughter in school (what, 6 years from now?), and I have no idea how the local district, or the parochial school (if we have the cash), handles this time of year. Ideally, the histories (plural!) of all ethnic groups in the US would be told simultaneously. We all would hear multiple perspectives on our airwaves on a regular basis. No one would even NEED a special month. Students would work to integrate the whole, without demonizing all European-Americans or any other group. The realist in me says that with standardized testing, 45-minute class periods, and science teachers moonlighting in English and history due to budget cuts, getting the bare bones of the facts out there and hoping they stick is sometimes the best they can do.

So I ask the parents of school-age children out there: What are your schools like around this time? Are your kids as bored and confused as I was? What’s the best way you’ve heard of a school handling BHM or just “diversity” in general? What’s the worst? Have you felt the need to supplement at home? How do we engage our kids without giving them more dreaded “homework” to do?

Sue Lyons-Joell is a wetlands scientist near Philadelphia, PA. Also known as Lyonside, she has been active in various multiethnic groups and online forums since college. She’s more of a blogging fan than an actual blogger. Sue and her husband are expecting their first child in February 2007.

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