There are two questions that fellow teachers pose to me days after winter break. I consider both awkward. “What are you planning for Dr. King Day?” inquire acquaintances. “How are you doing Black History Month this year?” ask colleagues, their heads peaking into my room.
In our district, we usually have Dr. King Day off. I confess that usually I stay home reveling secretly at an extra day to grade and plan. During some newscast, I hear Coretta Scott King share her vision for the holiday in honor of her husband’s legacy—a day of community service. I creep to my computer to alleviate my guilt with hours of research, clicking through lessons plans meant to diversify the literature in my curriculum, to make the stories resonate with self-absorbed adolescents.
When I reflect upon this habit, it strikes me that I’m treating Dr. King Day as a pit stop on the way to Black History Month. With the wealth of web links and lesson plans burgeoning between the “celebrations,” I’m assured that I’m not alone. As I mop up the crumbs of Black History Month, I retreat guiltily; I’ve been tricked once again. I’ve been suckered into focusing on diversity like it’s a hiatus from the real learning of the year. All this gorging and denial feels a lot like binge eating.
I have my teaching ideals. When I began nearly four years ago, I made a commitment to expose my students to stories of every ethnicity and belief. I promised I’d move students out of their comfort zones. And my ideals do surface throughout the year. When Morgan Freeman recently decried Black History Month on 60 Minutes, I shouted “Absolutely!” from the couch, graded papers spilling off my lap. Neither Black history, nor, for that matter, any culture’s history should be segregated from the main curriculum.
I teach language arts—literature, grammar, writing and speech—in a rural high school. The state standards mandate that teachers instruct a kind of New Historicism—literary criticism based upon the author’s history and culture. It prepares students for college. Besides, there is a lot of emphasis these days on the higher order thinking skills and on making learning relevant to students’ lives—present and future. Nothing seems more relevant that learning to live in this salad bowl called the United States.
The standards also recommend literature texts that fall safely within “the canon”—that’s a buzz word for the “classics”—texts essential for cultural literacy. Critics, not proponents, use “canon” to raise awareness about the hegemonic forces that first engendered the need for a Black History or Women’s History Month.
Most teachers learn that the canon is a hard sell with students. It all starts with a challenge from the most vocal, and often, least motivated: “Why do I need to know this?” The first time a kid challenged me, I was teaching a segment of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, and bored seventh graders were dawdling over my lesson plan. It explored Mrs. Whatsit’s list of lightbearers, who include Mahatma Ghandi and Jesus. I stared them down to kill time and couldn’t provide a first-rate defense for months. I ruminated over their challenge in my nightly showers.
Over the summer, I changed my curriculum, adding Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. My Christian-school students had been cosseted in Protestant fundamentalism and an upper middle class milieu. I learned to read my class, listen to their story and heighten their suspense with a few complications in the plot—not all conflict is bad. I learned to sell the material. When a seventh-grader’s mom confided that my book choice really opened her son’s eyes, I knew that with this class there would be a more thoughtful response to L’Engle’s lightbearers. The class was willing to empathize. And we still had the spring semester, with February, to tackle more.
Now I teach high schoolers, who seem more jaded. Actually, they aren’t so different from middle schoolers, just smarter and ego-centric. Less than two percent of our student body classifies itself as non-white. When I introduce the issues of any other ethnicity, one student always pipes up—“They don’t like us either.” With that, they exonerate themselves.
But we educators are a well-meaning bunch. Black History Month is our aid in building empathy. Since few of our students are personally invested anything unrelated to themselves, we make February an entry point, and we kick down the doors to widen our entrance. By the end of the month, we are exhausted with the renovation. We bury our dirty little secret in a foundation we hope we’ve laid and relegate explicit integration to those celebrations.
It’s a complicated problem. We are perplexed by the task of making unfamiliar material relevant and personal. And we are combating more than student apathy. In conservative regions of the country, parents and pundits tend to label educators who go too far with integration. One such euphemism for us is “revisionist”—one who dares to revise the comfort zones of our culture.
We know what we’re doing when we celebrate Black History Month. We are playing off the idea that the whole country expects a little “kowtowing” to diversity. In turn, because we call it a celebration we are allowed to exonerate ourselves and our students from segmenting America’s cultures.
We sacrifice authentic cultural literacy in our exhaustion. It isn’t easy to brave the mindset of communities and their E.D. Hirsches. It requires hours to reconfigure our curriculum so students understand the interconnectivity of cultures and learn empathy. We exacerbate the trouble when we don’t modify Black history with the possessive pronoun “our.” When we fail to make African-, Asian- or Native American history part of our history, we trade a holistic understanding for trinkets and shiny beads to embellish the canonized American myth.
On Dr. King Day, Freeman took a beating for his comments on having a Black history month. Yet, I confess, I cannot let go of the anniversary. Black History Month began as an entry point for teachers and students. In the 1920’s Carter G. Woodson initiated the celebration as a week to remember the deaths and legacies of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Somewhere between the work to weave all of our cultures together and to provide entry points for introducing each is an educator foundering over lesson plans. I guess Woodson got the interdependence of it all when he married the protests of Douglass with the politicking of Lincoln.