Thursday, February 08, 2007

What Would Howard Zinn Do? or On Tokenism

Yesterday was the seventh consecutive day my students have asked me what we're doing for Black History Month and the seventh day I've wondered, "SHOULD I be doing something?"

My school is predominantly African-American (although my classes aren't) and my students' most common request is to "just have a chill day." A cardinal rule of education (or at least of pre-NCLB education) is that if your students drop their guard long enough to express a desire to learn about something, you damn sure better teach them about that something.

One of my Social Studies colleagues is highlighting a notable African-American at the beginning of each of his classes throughout February. The English department is promoting a campaign to abolish the "N" word. But __________ History Month is an approach to the study of History I have long abhorred, and I'm particularly averse to teaching Black History to black kids in this manner.

It's worth noting at this point that I am not black. I'm white, in fact, and I'm not sure how my race affects my position on Black History Month. The story I've always been told as a student of History is, in large part, a story of my people -- white people. But the stories that have always resonated with me, touched me, and made me CARE about History are the stories of oppressed people, even though I have never been the least bit oppressed.

These are the stories I tell as a teacher. Yesterday's class made no mention of Maya Angelou, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, or the Tuskegee Airmen, but my course deals (on a regular basis) with all sorts of issues related to the marginalization of minorities. In the past week I've discussed ghettoes, government policies that perpetuate poverty, Brown v. Board, and gerrymandering.

I like to think that my treatment of students, my commitment to teaching all of them, and my emphasis on injustice mean that I am, in a sense, doing Black History every day. I mean, isn't it more important that Black kids receive quality instruction on meaningful and relevant topics throughout the year than that for one month they learn about the first African-American senator/astronaut/nobel laureate/doctor/whatever?

Of course, I live in a city with more institutional racism than you can shake a stick at, so it might actually be important to do both. It's just that the latter approach smacks of tokenism to me. I get why we have Black History Month, but wouldn't it be nice if we didn't NEED it?


RandyLuvsPaiste said...

I agree with the Tokenism of BHM.
As you stated perfectly, we'd be better served by studying institutional racism and attitudes year around, than waiting until February to highlight a famous black poet or teacher, etc. How about teaching the subtle bigotry of Joe Biden's praise of Obama as being "articulate"?

PS- I know you're busy (and now in love) but blogging only once a week just doesn't cut it. Maybe you should start using mindless, pop-culture blog filler like Some Guy?

lulu said...

I am currently reading Huck Finn with one of my classes in preparation for a field trip to see a production of it at a local theater. I explained to my students that I could not say the N-word, and that the word is used over 200 times in the book, so we would have to come up with an alternative word choice. The word they chose was "Chigger".

My students are predominantly Hispanic, although there are at least a handful of African-American kids in each of my classes, and they couldn't quite believe that I was serious when I told them I wouldn't say the word, even if I was reading from the book. Ah, Liberal White Guilt.

Brian said...

Um, dude, we're Irish Catholic. We know a thing a two or racism and oppression, so while these kinds of things never happened to us specifically, it obviously still resonates, which is why we both feel this way about Black History Month.

Megan said...

Randy - Hmmmm. Well, I don't have a TV and I've only ever seen like ten movies, so pop culture filler's gonna be a bit tough. But, yeah, posting once a week is lame. I'd give myself a D on blogging lately.

Lu - The "N" word literally makes me feel like throwing up. And there's no way in hell I could SAY it.

Brian - So oppression is in our blood? I still maintain that I have never been personally oppressed, but I'm not sure you have to have been in order to really care about injustice.

Brian said...

You're not going to try and tell me it's not in our blood, are you? 'Cause that'd be, um, stupid.

I certainly don't mean to suggest that Irish people (or Jewish or Black people) are the only ones capable of caring about injustice, but it certainly hits home.

Unless, of course, one has forgotten one's own history and heritage and is only Irish when it's convenient or serves a specific purpose.

vikkitikkitavi said...

I agree with you, that it might be important to both teach up to your own high standard, and find some way of acknowledging BHM.

I just have never been able to get over the unintentional (I'm assuming) joke of designating the shortest month of the year.

Megan said...

Brian - Ah, yes, winning people over to your point of view by calling them stupid. . .always a good tactic.

Vikki - I was thinking that very thing last night (about it being the shortest month).

Anon. Blogger said...

Know what is really sad? My kids go to schools where the only African American kid I can think of is a former NFL football player's kid - so I know of ONE. Know what? My kids actually noticed that the schools here are MORE diverse than where we lived before! Granted, there are more hispanic kids, even still, not an environment I would call diverse.

BHM? I haven't heard a darn thing about it! That's terrible.

BTW, last year a different NFL retiree's kid was in my daughter's class. Can you believe that a few kids on the playground made up a rumor that she was going to beat someone up? Sick!!!

I'm proud to say that my daughter was recognized by the teacher that week as having been a 'good friend' to a new student. They remained friends until the girl moved back with her mom in another town.

Anonymous said...

we're not covering it because we're cramming for our state standardized test, the FCAT. Everything else falls to the wayside o'er that damned test.

of course, this year they added a science test (with questions that can be retroactive to Kindergarten), they've increased the points necessary to keep A,B,C status, AND the science test counts twards school grades. Oh, and we're overcrowded by 140%.

Black History Month? Be serious; it's not even on our district's radar.

Brian said...

I wasn't trying to win anyone over. And sometimes you're stupid.

Megan said...

Ladies and gentlemen, my little brother.

AB - It sounds like you've raised quite the kid! And I guess that's another point to be made about BHM - it shouldn't be just for black people.

BO - Fucking NCLB.