Food For Thought Wednesdays: Black History in Schools

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I thought it was a great time to write this, as I was thinking about it and ranting about it on Twitter. It just happens to be Wednesday, a day I’ve designated for thought-provoking posts, and it is the 50 year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I was watching the speech being aired on MSNBC during Chris Haye’s All In timeslot with my younger brothers, aged 12 and 13, and I remembered a time where I said something about an event in Black history and they had never even heard of or knew what I was talking about. I said, “Didn’t you learn that in school?” They said, “No. We only learned about Rosa Parks sitting on the bus and Martin Luther King being an activist and getting shot and killed.” I asked if they emphasize or acknowledge Black History Month at school. They said no. I then asked if they knew who our nearby airport was named after and his significance (the full name of the airport is Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, or just shortened as BWI or BWI Marshall). I had never actually taken the time to really think about that. I guess I just assumed that Black History Month was taught and celebrated in most schools in the United States.

I spent much of my childhood in city neighborhoods, one of those being Baltimore City. I went to Leith Walk Elementary – School #245 (they never let us forget which number our school was). Black History month was vibrant and exciting. Hallways and classrooms plastered with posters and drawings of prominent Black men and women; spreads of red, green, and black; a new Black history fact or story every morning read to us over the intercom every morning by Mrs. Greer, our principal; and the singing of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” This was normal at Leith Walk. Even when it wasn’t Black history month, school was very festive. If you go to the school’s website, you’ll be greeted by the ‘school song’ that I so vividly remember. We’d have huge assemblies complete with students singing and dancing on stage, and a few older Black men and women who had come to talk to us about the 50s and 60s in the United States. I specifically remember having an assembly that probably took up most of the school day (aside from lunch) for a living legends assembly that honored great people in the community. I met then-Baltimore mayor, Kurt Schmoke, and Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (D) several times. I have even met Martin O’Malley (although that is because of my father). But anyway, not to stray from the topic, Black history was a big deal as a kid. And it was fun and fascinating to learn. Believe it or not, they showed us Alex Haley’s “Roots” in third grade. I’ll never forget the mortified looks of my fellow classmates when they saw the naked women on the screen.

So in the summer of 1999, we moved to Randallstown in Baltimore County. Still a predominantly Black town, but far less congested (classes of 18 vs. City schools classes of nearly 40), a bit more affluent, and no city noises that I was used to. Still, Black History month was a big deal, but not nearly as much as it was at my previous elementary school. I stayed in this area until I graduated from high school and went to college. Sometime before then, my younger brothers started school in the same school district, my older brother had the same experience as me, in fact, we did not attend the same elementary schools but his school, Walter P. Carter Elementary, was another very enthusiastic school. I mean, that school is even named after a civil rights leader! My parents and brothers had moved to a different area of the county while I was away at college, and this area is predominantly White. Schools here do not emphasize Black history, and some do not even acknowledge that slavery occurred. Which, is understandable, there aren’t many Black people around here. But my brothers are not as familiar with these things as my older brother and I are.

Now one may argue that all those things are overboard and unnecessary. Maybe we don’t need to teach it in schools. Maybe Black History month is just a band-aid for the Black community. But I am amazed at how school districts, hell, even different parts of the SAME school district differ in their teachings of American History. A sorority sister of mine interned in Allegany County in Western Maryland, and was told by the principal not to talk about Rosa Parks or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was so surprised that a principal specifically instructed teachers not to teach that type of material. And no offense, the locals of Western Maryland can sometimes be very unkind and intolerant to people of color. The fact that the schools are not teaching these things is probably contributing to that. There have been many times in college at Frostburg that I can remember racial slurs being written in random places on campus, or neighborhood folk just being obnoxious and yelling things like “White Power” out of their car windows.

I don’t often feel very strongly about many issues, but I can honestly say that this issue intrigues me. I’m usually one to recognize prejudice, while still maintaining the understanding that not everyone thinks that way (the optimist in me), but today, I can really see how regional values are important. While we’ve come a long way from slavery, legal segregation, Black suffrage, President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the election (and re-election) of President Barack Obama we have not yet completed this journey. And we have to keep working at it.

Thanks for reading.



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