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?