I came across an image on social media the other day and it made me stop and think. In it, two boys—one white and one Black—are walking down the street, the Black student dragging a small wagon filled with books on Black history. The white boy turns to him and says, “I thought your people celebrated Black history in the month of February?” The Black boy replies, “Nope. That month is for y’all! We celebrate all year long!”
For so long, I thought of Black History Month as a gesture, a woefully insufficient one surely, but still a gesture towards the Black community, one that sought to honor and acknowledge the pain and joy of Black America.
I had been reared and taught to think of Black History Month as a time to essentially hit the pause button on the regularly scheduled programming so as to learn stories and histories largely excluded from standard curricula.
But what if Black History Month wasn’t solely about white students learning the same old recycled stories of Rosa Parks, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and slavery taught in ways that sanitize ongoing oppression and de-radicalize the legacies of civil rights agitators?
I’m imagining a Black History Month that, in addition to honoring the beauty, joy, and perseverance of Black America, pulls back the veil on white supremacy’s continued legacy in all facets of American society. I’m imagining a month where white students identify their places within the white supremacy paradigm, where they face the oppressor within and come stare at the gruesome violence done to Black bodies.
I imagine white children being taught slavery not as the beginning of Black history, but rather as the interruption of Black history. I imagine white children facing the horrors of lynching, not just in written form, but through the images shamelessly recorded and proliferated on postcards.
I imagine white children learning about Black Wall Street and the Move bombing in Philadelphia. I imagine white children seeing the difference in the portrayal of the crack epidemic and the opioid epidemic. I imagine white children seeing the very true racism and injustice that continues every single day on the streets of America, most recently in Rochester where a nine-year-old girl was pepper sprayed with her hands behind her back.
I imagine white children being taught the less visible but no less vicious aspects of white supremacy; of red-lined neighborhoods resulting in impoverished neighborhoods and under-resourced schools, within-school segregation with white students funneled into advanced academic tracks while students of color remain in general education tracks, and disciplinary disparities the setup and perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.
In short, I want white students all over the country, my two sons included, to use February not to simply learn a ‘safe’ and ‘white-washed’ curriculum of Black history, but rather to take the anti-racist steps of learning the truth of white supremacy in America.
As I recently learned, racism isn’t a Black or people of color problem. It’s a white people problem because it is a system of advantages for whites that we perpetuate with our silence. This inverts the traditional mode of thinking that racism is a problem for Black people to solve. Racism isn’t a problem for Black people to solve. Racism is for white people to solve, and the work can happen only when white America faces the truth.
This won’t change everything. It may not even change anything. If someone doesn’t know the history of white supremacy by now, that is likely a cultivated ignorance based upon a genuine apathy towards Black humanity. But as an educator, I cannot but hope in the power of learning.
So this Black History Month, in addition to learning more of the beauty and joy and strength of Black America, let white America dive into the unsettling and necessary work of facing the oppressor within.
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 ...