The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.  Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."...  ...Robert F. Kennedy.

Commentary of the Day - February 8, 2008: History Lessons.  Guest commentary by Beverly C. Lucey.

February and Black History Month worries me.  Again.

On the official day in January designated to remember the birth of Martin Luther King and all that he did to promote equality in the latter part of the 20th century, I started to think about what schools do (and do not do) to acknowledge this worthy intention.   Many other people went shopping on that holiday, for purely patriotic reasons, you know.  To help the economy.

It has been my experience that too many schools do not do history well.  While the cliché is: those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it, public schools and their haphazard history texts are designed not to offend anyone.  Therefore, they perpetuate the reality that: children who study history are doomed to keep reading about the same dang events.

Regardless of the cultural make up of schools, whether rural, suburban, or city, students learn, and relearn very few names and events.  They learn a ragged small slice of the pie.  They learn and relearn about the slave trade and slavery, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  They see or hear or read Martin Luther King and his "I Have a Dream" speech and perhaps watch one or two episodes of "Eyes on the Prize."  That's the way it goes for most grades, every year.  Lost are the years of growth in New Orleans society, the birth of the blues, The Great Migration North of the 1930s.

Many school libraries are rich with information in all fields, and Internet access could bring the world to the children with a few keystrokes, but it does not happen much, no matter how hard individual teachers try.  Many are bound to the text and the one novel accepted for their curriculum, one often written in slave dialect, that the teacher reads aloud, in grade five, for fifteen minutes a day for the month of February.

I maintain that the blurring of events and time, the repetition of a few significant events, plus the lack of scope and perspective, is exactly what is wrong with most history courses, no matter what is being studied.  It's coverage.  That's all....coverage.

I am not of a mind to take on an entire discipline and how history narrows our view of the world as we grow up.  But too many of us learned little of the world outside early Europe and Colonial America through World War II.  Perhaps the "new texts" go all the way up to Viet Nam now.  But books are expensive, and they don't get changed out very often.

I would like a major rethinking of Black History Month, as it is now presented in most schools.  As a nation continually working on respect for diversity, of accepting that we are a country of immigrants, that our color, our language influences, our very culture is a work in progress, I propose that February be renamed African-American Awareness Month.  Just the name change would open up the world that our students live in right now, the world they should care so very much about.  This wide angle, rather than linear lens, could then involve more disciplines and more openness.

Students could be sent to the library on scavenger hunts to uncover biography and profiles.

They could study military history that includes the Black units in the Civil War, the irony of segregation in the military during WWII, and the integration of the troops during Viet Nam just as civil rights battles were being fought on our own soil.  Do our students know about African American units that liberated concentration camps in Germany?  Have students considered the possibility that first American that some German Jews might have seen as a hero, was a Black American?

But history is not just about war and politics.  History is about our people and their day-to-day struggles for survival.  History is about our people and their stories of success.

We should expand our studies to include Caribbean culture and that of other places affected by the African Diaspora.  Students should learn more about The Harlem Renaissance.  And they should learn more about the history of Blacks in film, about stereotypes in general, about affirmative action, about African-American heroes of today and the past.  Sports, science, and sociology are full of heroes, hard workers, and brilliant minds.  Our students should investigate how jazz, American classical music, is appreciated world wide in a relatively color blind way.  Folk tales, food, and fine art should all make a special Afro-centric appearance this month.

Schools could pick a revolving series of themes that might preclude the repetition of the same horrors, that while never should be forgotten, should not be drilled into students to the point of numbness, shame and defensiveness, and worse to the point of boredom.

Think about this.  If I were a black child in almost any school, I would dread the week or more my class spent thinking of my people as slaves.  I would feel victimized, perhaps pitied, or on the spot, during the oppressive month of February, especially if there are few other blacks in my school.  I would learn how my relatives or people who looked like me were traded, whipped, ignored, lynched, and hosed.

I would not learn much about African-American high society, economic success, parallel educational opportunities, musical gifts and inventions, great writers, scientists, and individual heroes, beyond the daring Miss Rosa Parks who sat on a bus and refused to budge.  The goal of Black History month is worthy, but African American influence on our country and culture is done a disservice.  Our students of all colors deserve more respect and understanding of the complexities within their own backgrounds and those of others.

Conclusion - history, unfortunately, is too often considered inert, people think that it should be forgotten, denied as having significance now, as the world so rapidly shifts.  It's pretty clear we never thought to include the culture of the Muslim world in most of our history books.  Our efforts as educators to respond to these feelings has perpetuated these negative perceptions.  Awareness leads to discovery and appreciation.  It implies life, growth, and moving forward.

African American Awareness Month would bring much more sun into the grayness of February that pervades the American classroom.  Receiving even less attention is National Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15) but it's been on the books since 1968.  In 1976 Native Americans got a week in November, and in 1990 it was extended to the entire month of November.  Since 1992 May has been Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.  Who knew?  But the word "heritage" has more openness to it than history.

By the way, January and April are still open.

Perhaps the larger lesson here is that history is happening concurrently to diverse peoples.  Should we dedicate a month to highlighting one group of hyphenated Americans in our history classes, or should we be studying interwoven cultures all the time in all our disciplines?

© 2008, Beverly C. Lucey.
Beverly Lucey is a writing instructor at Westfield State College in Westfield, MA.  She also blogs at Beverly Lucey's New Home for Wayward Words.

The Irascible Professor comments: It's unfortunate that we still need a Black History Month.  In a more perfect world the history of African-Americans would long ago have been fully interwoven with the history of America.

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