This week my husband and I sat down with our 13 year old twin sons to talk shop. What’s going on in school, how are your friends, what kinds of lessons have your teachers introduced on the topic of Black History Month? “Nothing, really,” the boys said in unison. “Oh, but there was that school assembly,” one said before they burst into laughter. They began to trade off in telling us about that assembly. The one that celebrated Black History Month by having two white people (a female and male student) lead, and talk about what black history means to them. Can you guess what black history means to white people in an affluent school district in PA? Let me give you a hint.
If you said, nothing, you’d probably be right, but this particular duo spoke on a civil rights icon. Ready, set, guess!
If you thought Stokely Carmichael or Malcolm X or Ella Baker, you’d be wrong. Of course, the two white conductors of the Black History Month assembly began by talking about Rosa Parks and then showed the audience of middle schoolers a video on Rosa Parks — narrated by the white male student. He said things like, “She sat on the bus and she didn’t move because she was tired.” And, “This led many African Americans to boycott the bus.” And, “Because of them, we can all sit on the bus, wherever we want.”
That was literally the gist of this faux celebration of blackness. If their mission was to whiten Black History up as much as possible, they succeeded. If their mission was to further alienate the black student body by making them incidental participants in their own history telling, they sure did that, with a cherry on top. It’s akin to a Christian taking the lead on an assembly about Judaism or Islam. It’s akin to a Cinco De Mayo celebration being led by white men with no input from the Mexican community.
Their school completely undermined their black student body and their one black teacher with this, I’m hoping, unintentional display of ignorance. But how could it not feel intentional? How could a school seek to create an environment of inclusion (that’s what the principal told my husband and I) when they can so easily forget the importance of black leadership during an assembly that is supposed to celebrate its black students and the achievements of black people? It is a sort of erasure, that is not at all foreign to the black experience in America, but nonetheless, alarming that it’s still happening in schools in 2016.
As if the only black representations needed to illustrate black excellence is through the same lazy interpretation of blackness needing to be freed... But, I’m guessing they don’t even care about black excellence. They care about what’s easy. Rosa Parks is easy because they don’t have to do any research, they don’t have to dig deeply into the history vault to get on with checking inclusivity off their diversity to-do list.
They then followed the video with a performance by the Step Team (run by the only black teacher in the school) featuring black students in a formation that whites are used to. (Let em dance, but they can’t say nothing). And then followed that by the Ellington Jazz Band (named after a black man named Duke, but don’t tell them that) led by the white band teacher, featuring an almost all white band, except for the one black student member who was lodged in the back of the ensemble. Low and behold, they did not play any Duke Ellington. Then there was the Cantabile group, who sang “Amazing Grace.” Again, only one black member, but she was lodged in the back of the ensemble.
Let us not forgot there was a video performance by a spoken word artist (a black spoken word artist) whose apparent spoken-wordness made the entire audience of white students laugh out loud. Like, literally laugh out loud at the sight of a black woman speaking emotionally and loudly about Rosa Parks during Black History Month. To this display of what my son called, “shenanigans” he then added, “The assembly was so ridiculous. They couldn’t ask any of us black students to participate outside of the step team. I guess they were trying to teach me about myself. Fail.”
Fail, indeed. As the first black Vice President of his school wouldn’t it have made sense to ask my son to participate in leading the assembly? Or the black athletes, the many black scholars — there are at least 50 black students in the school. As a student union rep they’ve asked him to help with the 7th grade dance, to seed the garden, to help with the 5k, but the Black History Month assembly, that’s just completely outside of his capabilities. Wouldn’t it have made sense to ask the only black teacher (who also happens to run the step team) if she wanted to lead this assembly or if she had ideas for the assembly that could better shed light on Black History outside of the same list of character(s) they’ve been exposed to since Kindergarten? How insulting must it have felt for the minority of black students to have their history told to them by a white classmate, their music icons not even mentioned but appropriated by the jazz band. And, the icing on top, the moment a black person does spoken word, they laugh with the emotional deficiency of a wack-a-mole, because its so different.
For any teachers, admin out there, considering beautifying your white landscape during Black History Month with images of blackness that force your whiteness into the foreground to usurp, once again, the power of your students of color, think again. They may not say it to you, but it hurts. It’s a slap in the face and not at all an example of inclusion when you exclude the very people you’re supposed to be highlighting. Ask your student body about their ideas on assemblies that relate to their experience, their history, their voice matters. #BlackLivesMatter, boo. And, you cannot teach me more about myself.