I asked them who was the first black president. They eagerly and confidently responded, “Dr. King!” I was extremely shocked and caught off guard by their answer, for multiple reasons. At the moment I was leading a discussion at a primarily African-American after-school program, on the South Side of Chicago. But it wasn’t just the South Side of Chicago—we were in Altgeld Gardens. Affectionately known as “The Gardens,” this is the community where President Barack Obama spent some time as a local community organizer. Granted these children were yet to be born at the time Obama graced their community, but hadn’t they heard stories? Wouldn’t this key information be included in the curriculum of schools in The Gardens as bragging rights? If I were an educator in The Gardens, I’d probably say something along these lines: "The first Black president of the U.S.A. got his start in OUR community. You, as well, are starting in Altgeld Gardens, and you can be anything your heart desires. Even the president." I admit, it sounds corny, but it’s true. Our children tend to aspire to be like the intangible personas they see on television or hear on the radio, completely oblivious to the everyday heroes in their community. I decided to ask them a few more questions, but I quickly realized that was a bad idea. I asked them to give me the name of a historical black author. A kid eagerly blurted out, “Steve Harvey!” While Steve Harvey is indeed an author, I was hoping to hear names such as: Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes or Alice Walker. Nope. I knew it was going downhill when they told me Dr. King, in accordance with him being the first black president, also freed the slaves. I couldn’t take it any longer. I asked them if they were being taught black history in school (although the answer was evident). They responded, “No.” These children were being failed. They were being robbed of their history. But let me say this: It isn't their fault. Their answers may have frustrated me, but I wasn’t frustrated with them. I was actually hurt and in a slight state of shock. It’s a huge eye opener to know not all students in Chicago are receiving the education doused with black culture that I received.
Teach Them Their Heritage
I remember my elementary school experience like it was yesterday. Every morning we held our hands over our hearts while facing the American flag, quoted the Pledge of Allegiance and sang obnoxiously loudly to an old recording of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Black History Month was all year round, but we especially celebrated during the month of February. Our teachers adorned themselves with tribal print and held special assemblies to honor our beautiful history. Black history trivia took place within each classroom, with special prizes for the winners. The cherry on top was a visit to Chicago's beloved
DuSable Museum of African American History. It was simply divine, and will forever be one of the most enriching experiences of my life. However, today’s Black History curriculum, or shall I say lack of it, has me deeply concerned. Just when I thought maybe I was jumping to conclusions, my mentee who attends a Chicago Public Schools high school posted a Facebook status on how frustrated she is with not being thoroughly taught black history. Something must be done. Immediately. I don’t have all the answers. However, I can confidently say that black history is indeed American history. We are doing our children a disservice by failing to teach them about themselves. We have one week left of Black History Month. Start now. Do SOMETHING. If you have no idea where to start and you live in Chicago, the DuSable Museum is free on Sundays. Start there. Don’t stop. Black history is 365 days a year. Look at the White House: Black history is now. Let the babies know.
“We repeat what we don’t repair.” -Christine Langley-Obaugh
Tanikia Carpenter blogs about schools and life on Chicago’s South Side at Chicago Unheard. Her work has been featured on the TLC network, ESSENCE, and Huff Post LIVE, just to name a few. Tanikia is a regular contributor to Black & Married With Kids and the columnist of JET Magazine's "Giving You the Gospel." She is also the author of "When God Said ...