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Teaching Black History


It’s asking a lot of history teachers to “teach black history” throughout the month of February. I mean, it’s out of context really to shove an entire people’s experiences into one month- the shortest one, I might add- when we at the junior history level are in the midst of the 1960s. There’s a lot of “black history” in the 1950s and 1960s though, which certainly supports the efforts to dig deep into the past of Black Americans.

I definitely loved sharing the Civil Rights movement with students for several different reasons. One huge one was the music. I have a great collection of CDs that the famed folk music collector Alan Lomax compiled. It has the greatest tunes on it- some you’ve heard, but lots you likely haven’t. One recording starts out with the singer recounting a story about how growing up, his dog was allowed to play with the white kid’s dog, and he wondered why the children themselves couldn’t play together. “My dog, loves your dog, and your dog, loves my dog- then why can’t we. . .”

I also love breaking down the oft-quoted stories of Dr. King and Rosa Parks because those stories have often been washed of their more intense and even controversial meanings. For example, Dr. King was in Memphis when he died fighting to help poor sanitation workers get equal wages to their white counterparts. He was against the Vietnam War! “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem”, he declared at Riverside Church. Those are things often forgotten about his legacy, but they make him so much richer as a leader.

Another favorite of mine was sharing with the students that Rosa Parks WAS sitting in the black section of the bus- the front seat of the black section. The bus was getting full, and that’s when the bus driver told her to get up for oncoming white passengers, and she refused. Doesn’t that tidbit strike you as even more egregious behavior from the bus driver? Her crime, as stated on the arrest form, was “refusing to obey orders of a bus driver.”

Jazz and blues aficionados might well know a song sung by Billie Holiday called “Strange Fruit,” but few high school students do. Even those adults who know it might not think too much about the actual poetry, the imagery present in that haunting poem. It’s not just a clever melody, but a protest song against lynching often sung at rallies, and written by a teacher disgusted by a picture he saw of a lynching.

Black History in America is dark indeed, but I see it as a privilege for our students to have teachers willing to share the truth with them in an age-appropriate manner. Leaving out the complexities of the stories might be easier, but it robs those figures of their deeper impact, and our children of a full picture of this nation.

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