It’s Black History Month.
We’re making murals of artists from the Harlem Renaissance. We’re jamming to jazz, blues, R&B and hip hop. We’re reading excerpts from the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” We’re writing journals about what it means to be the people we are and to come from wherever we come from.
In short, we’re having a lot of fun.
But each child responds differently to the siren call of Black History – especially when the person making the call is a white teacher, like me.
Today I asked my classes of 7th grade students – most of whom are impoverished and/or minorities – “Would you like to talk about some Black History?”
And the responses I got were all over the place.
Some of the children enthusiastically took to their feet with a robust “Yeah!”
Others nodded. Some were merely quiet as if they didn’t think I were asking a real question. And some honestly ventured “No.”
In one class, a white student got so upset at the suggestion we spend valuable class time on Black History that he fell to the floor and almost hide under the table.
I’ll admit I was somewhat shocked by that.
What was he so reticent about? I mean I know the kid. He loves black culture. We all do. What does he have against learning about black people?
He’s a big heavy metal fan. What’s heavy metal without Jimi Hendrix?
He loves standup comedy. What’s standup comedy without Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy or – heck – even Steve Harvey?
And didn’t I see him the other day watching the preview to Marvel’s “Black Panther” with baited breath?
“What’s wrong?” I asked him on the floor.
“Mr. Singer, I really don’t want to learn about Black History.”
And it was on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t say it – “Dude, if anyone needs to learn Black History, it’s you.”
I patted him on the back and told him he’d survive. But I let him stay on the floor.
Then we moved on.
We watched the video for the song “Glory” by Common and John Legend just to set the mood.
The kids were almost hypnotized. I’m not sure if it was the images from the movie “Selma,” the gorgeous singing and piano playing or the unexpected joy of hearing someone rapping in class.
When it was over, most of them couldn’t wait to talk about a few well-chosen people of color.
We started with the black power fist from the 1968 Olympics, talked about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, why they did what they did and even how it related to modern day protests like those initiated by Colin Kaepernick.
This got kids asking all kinds of questions. We talked about the origin of the slave trade, the science behind melanin and skin color, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and (in one class) we even took a deep dive into the lyrics of the National Anthem to discover why some people find it to be racist.
In short, it would be difficult to find a more productive 20-30 minutes. Kids were engaged and thoughtful, many looking up further details on their iPads as the bell rang and they left the room.
All except the white child on the floor.
He had participated in the discussion – reluctantly. But he hadn’t moved from his cave.
“Can I talk to you, Mr. Singer?” he said.
I told him, “Sure.” And he went on to tell me the kinds of things his grandparents say about black people.
He told me about their virulent opposition to Kaepernick, how they though black people were just whining about nothing and that racism had been over for fifty years.
It’s a hard position to be put in by a student.
You don’t want to contradict their folks, but you can’t let untruths pass by either.
I asked him what he thought about it. He wasn’t so sure.
So I told him just to think about what we had said. I asked him to keep an open mind.
For instance, I said, if Kaepernick shouldn’t take a knee during the National Anthem, when should he protest?
“How about with a sign in the street?” he said.
To which I responded that black people have done that and been told that was just as unacceptable.
By this time another student came back into the room and walked up to us. She was a white girl who’s usually very quiet.
“Mr. Singer, thank you for talking with us about all that stuff today,” she said.
I told her she was welcome and asked her what she thought about it.
“I just wish all this stuff wasn’t happening,” she said.
I asked her to elaborate.
“I mean that black power fist thing you showed us, that was like a hundred years ago.”
“Fifty years,” I corrected and she repeated me.
“And it’s still happening,” she said. “I just don’t understand why. Why can’t we all just live in peace?”
I smiled at her and the boy who had been quietly listening.
We spoke a bit further and they walked off together in deep conversation.
There are many great reasons to talk about Black History.
For children of color, it shows them that this nation wasn’t built entirely by white people, that they too are a part of America, that they have much to be proud of and to aspire to.
But that’s not the only reason to teach it.
Black History is important for white kids, too.
But especially white children need to learn about their responsibilities as white people.
They didn’t start racism. Neither did I. But it has been practiced in our names and we have benefited from it.
If we don’t want to be a part of it, we need to recognize that and take a stand against it.
I acknowledge that’s an uncomfortable truth for middle school students. And it’s something I can’t simply sit my kids down and discursively tell them.
But in generating these conversations between children of different backgrounds, ethnicities and upbringings, I think it provides the chance for them to come to their own conclusions.
It’s a dangerous place to be.
Allowing kids to think for themselves means allowing them to come to conclusions you might not agree with.
The boy from my class might come in next week further convinced of his grandparents’ prejudice. Or he might not. But I suspect he will have thought about it some.
That’s all I can do.
As a group, white people could use more of that honest reflection. As adults, we become fixed in our thinking and rarely have the bravery of giving something a second thought.
But children’s characters are still being formed.
Conversations like this one give me hope for the future.
Black History is not just about the past. It’s about where we’ll go in the future.
Moreover, it’s not just important for black people. White people need exposure to it, too.
I know I do.