Whose History Month?

Not everything is black and white

Even Dave Chappelle and Jay-Z weren’t cool enough. For some reason, my attempts to fit Black History Month into my high school junior English lesson plans by drawing parallels between these contemporary black entertainers and the work of icons like Frederick Douglas and Langston Hughes just wasn’t working. It worked when I made Catcher in the Rye cool by watching the thematically similar movie, Igby Goes Down, and they really got into it when we did a feminist analysis of The Great Gatsby . Some students might have groaned at the extra work, but they also talked in class, and, I hope, learned something. Now it seemed my class had become the one the kids just had to struggle though. Of the 50 or so girls in the two classes at the all-girls school I teach at in Brooklyn about 30 are black. I struggled to figure out why they just didn’t seem to care about what I thought was their own history.

At first, I blamed my students. They’re uncomfortable because it’s a white teacher talking about African Americans. Or maybe it’s because I’m asking tough questions about the potentially arbitrary nature of racial identity and the morality of using words like ghetto, pimp, and the n-word. They’re defensive and can’t handle it.

But—to be fair—I asked them to fill out an anonymous questionnaire to find out. Race is always a hard thing to talk about, particularly if you’re not a member of the race being discussed. I found out in the evaluations that a lot of the Latina girls aren’t quite sure how to talk about feeling left out by Black History Month. When I asked the students to write something they don’t like about the class, one girl wrote, “Black History Month (Explanation: It’s not that I don’t like African American people…it’s just I don’t understand why people stress so much about it but not on other cultures).”

What’s hardest about my school, though, is that it’s not just Latin girls that don’t identify as African American. It’s also most of the black girls. Much of the population of my high school is from the West Indies, and while many of these girls are from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, about a third of the school are black girls from Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana. Of course, there are girls from China, Panama, Mexico, and even such exotic places as Virginia, North Carolina and—shockingly—Brooklyn, but these are the exceptions. Most girls are either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants and they bring with them an immigrant’s insistence that identity is entirely self-created. The editor-in-chief of the school’s yearbook proclaims, seemingly at random, that she is neither black nor Haitian, even—jokingly—that she hates black people. Yet, when offended by an off-color joke from a friend, she will loudly—and self-mockingly—announce that, as a black woman, she cannot tolerate such comments.

It’s unfair, though nonetheless true, that most people would not give these students the privilege of determining their own race. They are black, some might say—whether they like it or not—primarily as a function of their looking black. Yet what if they don’t want to be black? One of my students’ family is actually from Africa, and she would really rather all these people who have been in the states for generations stop calling themselves African-Americans because that’s what she believes her family authentically is. Other kids quietly judge the progress of African-Americans in this country as compared to their family’s success—often while enjoying the fashion and music that same black culture they criticize has produced. For some, all that connects these girls to the school’s few “real” African Americans is the color of their skin and a long-distance ancestry, and while that might seem important enough, deeming color-of-skin a relevant mark in the absence of any social context seems the exact sort of racism Black History Month is supposed to fight.

These girls have had the same month pushed on them for years, always about blacks, always about people they should care about, but never, at least in their minds, about them . It seems a bit too callous to tell them that since most people (even other black people) are going to treat them as black anyway, they might as well learn the stuff. I don’t doubt the noble intentions of creating months like these, but I worry that they’re more palliative than anything else. It’s true that certain histories have been forgotten, but I worry that our desire to give special attention not only leaves some people out but also risks making our focus far too specific. After my lectures on Martin Luther King, these Chinese, Haitian, Jamaican, Dominican, African-American, Puerto-Rican, Trinidadian, Guyanan, Mexican, Kenyan, and Italians girls will take the train home together to different neighborhoods where they will speak different languages, eat different food and live at least somewhat different lives. Yet while they are in school together, they share food, they teach each other curse words in various languages and they find that their lives are not really different at all.

An easier solution to my students’ challenge would be just to stop teaching black history because it’s too complicated and exclusive for my school. Yet the kids aren’t defeatist like this, and I’m still trying to learn, even amidst their prejudiced jokes and cultural insensitivity, how they are able to manage their daily interchange. Yes, I want to give my students knowledge of the great thinkers in races often ignored by textbooks. I want to teach them to recognize oppression, marginalization, and prejudice. I especially want them to continually challenge my assumptions regarding how I teach. But I mostly want them to keep laughing while they eat lunch with kids from a host of other races. They’re not going to learn this cultural give-and-take from Dave Chappelle, from Jay-Z, or even from Martin Luther King. They’re going to learn it from each other. And I’m going to learn it from them.