I attended Catholic school in the San Francisco Bay Area from kindergarten to college. By the time I got to high school, I was the only black student in my class who went to a school where only a fraction of the students were black people – and by a fraction, I mean there were fewer than 10 black students, and two of them were my brothers. I loved my school and was fortunate to have a positive experience, but I will never forget the feeling of being constantly surrounded by people who didn't look like me. That's why I always looked forward to February, even though I wasn't a fan of history classes as a kid.
Sitting in a classroom surrounded by my white colleagues while I heard a talk on Black History Month brought me a sense of pride that I couldn't quite put into words at the time. I jokingly referred to February as "my month" because it was one of the few times of the year when I heard black stories in class that weren't just about Jim Crow or slavery.
Our teacher played documentaries about historical black characters and events, and my classmates and I asked questions and did projects about them. Black History Month highlighted the strength and resilience of blacks and, perhaps more importantly, put our struggles in context. It wasn't just me who enjoyed the curriculum, however. I could always tell that my classmates liked it too. It was obvious they found black history –my Story – interesting, and I was delighted to witness it.
To the best of my knowledge, no parents or students in my school have ever complained about Black History Month, but if they did I would have been hurt. After attending many birthday parties in my teens, I realized that for many of my classmates I was their only black friend. Most of their encounters with blacks were through me and the pictures they saw on television, and neither did provide a fully accurate representation of the black experience.
What's special about Black History Month – or any day that black people are mentioned in the curriculum – is that if you're the only black student in your class, all the other kids will turn around when the subject is brought up. Eventually I got used to it and learned to stare straight ahead when it happened, but it served as a reminder that my coworkers saw that I was different from them.
Black students who attend predominantly white private or charter schools are in a unique position. On the one hand, they have the privilege of receiving newer books, attending smaller classes, and receiving individual attention that they might not otherwise have received in a public school. On the flip side, a student of color in a mostly white school sometimes means having to grapple with racial insensitivity on another level and often being surrounded by people who have been deprived of cultural immersion.
In 2018, black students dropped out a little more than 9% by private students in the US and approximately a quarter of the population at charter schools. A small percentage of black students in a school should never be an excuse to overlook Black History Month or make the curriculum optional. When schools start doing this, it doesn't just discourage white students from exposure to other cultures. They tell black students that their story is not relevant or important to anyone but them.
It helped all of us learn about black history from my classmates, but Black History Month isn't just an opportunity for white kids to learn about other cultures. It has a unique impact on black children in white schools. I know how important Black History Month is because it has helped too me Learn about my own story and remind me that while I may look different from my classmates, I have just as much potential and value.
When my eighth grade class was assigned to do a project on a historical character they looked up to, the other girls in my class picked Amelia Earhart and Jackie Kennedy. I chose Coretta Scott King, who I met in February of this year. I remember looking at a picture of King and thinking she looked like she might be my mother. I was frustrated that King was living in her husband's shadow and wanted to make sure I brought her story to life as I gave my presentation in class. Being able to find a historical character who looks like you is something white people often take for granted because their stories are everywhere. While there is certainly no shortage of historical black figures to choose from, we must try harder to learn more about our history. We have to go out of our way to make sure our stories are lifted up because if we don't, no one else will.
Black school districts don't gloss over white American history, so predominantly white schools must strive to raise black histories regardless of how many color students are enrolled. It's not just about teaching students about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr., or highlighting the contributions of blacks to American society. It's also about teaching students what kind of language is wrong, adding to black joy, adding context to the struggle of black Americans, and correcting harmful narratives about the black community. The point is that black students can see themselves reflected in history beyond slavery and Jim Crow and see greater opportunities for their future than they imagined.
Black History Month made me feel seen, heard, and worthy of being surrounded in white my entire childhood. It was the one month of the year when black history wasn't taught through just an oppressive lens. The curriculum is beneficial to all students, but has special meaning for black children in non-black school settings.
Carolyn Copeland is an editor and reporter for Prisma. It deals with racial justice and culture. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.
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