I Can't Be Yet Another White Teacher Who Doesn't Get Black History Month

Feb 2, 2018 12:00:00 AM


It shamed me to see the way so many White people honored Dr. King on MLK Day last month. For many, including myself at one point, Dr. King represents an idealized vision of a societal problem being solved without the discomfort of having to see oneself as a part of that problem. Take for example our nation’s chief politician who joined in on the hypocrisy. On his way to the college football national championship game in Atlanta, he signed into law the establishment of a new national park in Georgia honoring Dr. King. This is, of course, after he called NFL players "sons of bitches" who ought to be "fired." Such hypocrisy and blindness is what we get when [pullquote position="right"]we fool ourselves into thinking our shameful history is behind us.[/pullquote] As a well-meaning White educator who tried to honor Black History Month in my daily lessons, I, too, would focus solely on the past. I would start with the Middle Passage and end with the civil rights movement, hopping over centuries of African civilizations and choosing to ignore the continued existence of systemic racial oppression. I ignorantly and naively presented what I thought to be a completed chapter in our nation’s history. This approach is not so much problematic as it is, arguably, emblematic of the White co-opting of the civil rights movement. We, and I speak here for the White American majority, have watered MLK down to non-violent civil disobedience rather than radical insurgency against oppression. The same has been done with Black History Month. I need to ensure that when I lead my classroom in honoring Black History Month that I don’t simply focus on the relative distance and comfort of the civil rights movement. I need to push my students, and myself, further. In addition to the inspiring victories of the 1960s, I need to present my students with the “Negro Motorist Green Book” and discuss the realities that made such a book necessary. I need to give my students a space to critically analyze Reagan, Bush, Clinton and the War on Drugs and its continued disproportionate impact on Black American communities. I need to give my students the space to investigate the hope, promise and realities of America’s first Black president. I need to give my students the space to to talk about Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Kalief Browder. [pullquote]Teaching is about fighting for social justice.[/pullquote] For the next generation of social justice warriors to be effective in the fight against oppression, they need to be armed with truth. As an educator, I will push myself further this February by not simply engaging my students with Black History, but also with our own individual places within the larger narrative.
Photo courtesy of Mastery Charter Shoemaker Campus.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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