It is February again, meaning it’s time to celebrate Black History. Admittedly, not all aspects of Black History month as it is defined resonates with me, as I feel conflicted that the recognition of my peoples’ history is relegated to this short month. I am encouraged that Fayerweather School studies Black history throughout the year. Yet I struggle with the February celebration of our achievements. United States history should reflect the contributions and cultural influences of human beings from all over our planet, but sadly, even today, many of those cultural influences and stories are left to the margins and assigned to days, weeks, and months.
At FSS, we attempt to teach our students to recognize that there were people living on this land before anyone else showed up. We emphasize that people came to this country for many reasons and purposes, and yes, many of us were brought here against our will to labor and endure oppression for hundreds of years. There is so much to unpack here, and many teachers throughout the grades have taken on the work of helping students to construct a more complex and meaningful story about how our country came to be.
I remember vividly being in the fourth grade in Richmond, Virginia. I recall looking forward to Black History week, as it was called at that time. My teacher, a Black woman named Mrs. Salle spoke proudly about our history. We covered the traditional heroes; Dr. Martin Luther King, Benjamin Banneker, Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas. The lessons included a film, and the conversations were so short and vague that what I was learning made little sense to me until I started college. I had not thought deeply about how the free labor of slavery itself made individuals and our country prosper at our expense. The history books, nor my parents exposed me to the people who took a more militant stance against racism and oppression, such as Malcolm X, and long before him, Gabriel Prosser who planned a big slave rebellion in Richmond, VA in the summer of 1800.
While attending Spelman College I began to piece together the different parts of my story - my history and its complexities. I did not learn, until much later, that Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who was born in 1875 in my mother’s hometown of New Canton, Virginia, studied the African Diaspora and endeavored to introduce the world to Black History Week in February 1926. Dr. Woodson was the son of former slaves was self-taught. Despite this inherited adversity, Dr. Woodson was determined to get an education. After working in coal mines in West Virginia he went on to attend Berea College and became a teacher and school principal. From there he attended the University of Chicago and went on to get his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1912. While at Spelman, I was introduced to one of his books, The Mis-Education of the Negro - he so aptly described the conditions and challenges that faced African American people and I was taken aback by his words:
“When a Negro has finished his education in our schools, then, he has been equipped to begin the life of an Americanized or Europeanized white man, but before he steps from the threshold of his alma mater he is told by his teachers that he must go back to his own people from whom he has been estranged by a vision of ideals which in his disillusionment he will realize that he cannot attain. He goes forth to play his part in life, but he must be both social and bi-social at the same time. While he is a part of the body politic, he is in addition to this a member of a particular race to which he must restrict himself in all matters social. While serving his country he must serve within a special group. While being a good American, he must above all things be a "good Negro"; and to perform this definite function he must learn to stay in a "Negro's place.”
Dr. Woodson’s work raised my consciousness and made me want to read and understand more about the state of race in this country and world, and its impact on me. I appreciate the toil, effort, painstaking and beautiful work that Carter G. Woodson and those in his era and ours’ exert to lay the foundation of transferring knowledge and history about Black people’s vast contribution to this land. Let’s continue in the Fayerweather way to not just celebrate Black history, but to endeavor to understand how this history, our history, impacts where we stand in this very moment in time. I want us as educators to work to not diminish people’s life sacrifices and hardships to a date on the calendar. This, to me, acknowledges the marginalization of just a short 28 day remembrance that is Black History Month. I encourage everyone to read and learn about the world like my college self did, since knowing our history and discovering the wrongs of the past stop us from committing those same mistakes in the future.