“Oh snap, Scholars! It’s Black History Month,” I began February by saying. “But, we don’t need the shortest month of the year to indicate when it’s time to learn our history.”
My scholars — 5th graders, including 20 Latino students, four African American, two Cambodian, and one Tongan — are used to such loaded statements. They know that although February is officially Black History Month and October was Latino Heritage Month, every day in our class is an opportunity to learn more about communities of color, more about our communities.
There seems to be a misunderstanding that teaching about communities of color is something extra, or even fancy, but, it’s actually simply truth-telling. We’re not only providing students with an empowering foundation, we’re also exposing them to truths that are traditionally silenced. (This country was built by the hands of people of color —don’t get it twisted.) And it’s not just about what happens Feb. 1 – Feb. 28.
I envision my classroom as an elementary version of my people of color centered grad program, and very little like my Anglo-centered K-undergrad education. I am mixed-race, but read as Black, and I can still recall feelings of invisibility during my educational experience. The years would go by, and the only people of color I learned about were MLK Jr, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tumban. I don’t remember learning about any Latino or Asian heroes/ heroines, and I’m from Southern California!
Teaching my students about communities of color, and reading books that feature characters of color is an act of love, necessity, as well as personal therapy. I’m continuously trying to decolonize my own education, as I teach my scholars about themselves—about all communities of color—so that they can have moments of validation throughout their education.
So, what are we doing for Black History Month? I give two thumbs down to superficial nonsense like simply reciting Black History facts, so I try to make the experience for my students as in-depth as possible (let me take a minute to admit this is difficult when we have testing in every direction, and other distractions, but we still push on).
This month, my whole school is focusing on social movements from the 60s, and I chose the Black Panther Party for a couple of reasons. No. 1. I teach in Oakland (the birthplace of the Black Panther Party) and my school’s located across the street from a church that was a meeting space for The Party. I refuse to have a scholar of mine leave me without knowing the history of their environment. No 2: I was straight-up lied to about the Black Panther Party, and it wasn’t until college that I started learning more about the good that The Party did for all people of color. For example, the free breakfast, and free clinic programs that all of my students benefit from, were started by The Black Panther Party before the government institutionalized these programs. My kids need to know this.
Our activities for the month have also included reading One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia – a novel about three Brooklyn sisters visiting their Mother in 1968 Oakland, who happens to be a part of the Black Panther Party. Last Friday, we had a former Black Panther Party member visit our classroom for a Q &A. We’re listening to Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, and The Temptations daily. Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” is our song of the month. We’re doing research projects on heroes, and heroines, who were influential during this time. We’re watching snippets of The Black Power Mixtape. We’re memorizing the 10-Point Program from the Black Panther for our school’s Black History Month assembly. It’s heavy, but my students – regardless of their race — are loving it.
Yes, our activities will definitely go into March, and when you check in with us in April, May, or June, our agenda will be different, because we will have moved on (in March we’ll begin to look at the state of immigration — past and present— as we finish up our Black Panther essays). You can safely assume that even if we’re reading Roald Dahl’s, James and Giant Peach, we will somehow bring his story back to communities of color, while listening to some of the most excellent music our communities have to offer.
Because every month is our month.