By Jessica Shrock
One day last year, I was getting ready for Christmas and other holiday-themed educational lesson plans at my former job at an after-school tutorial business in which black children comprise nearly all of the enrollees.
Once everyone had assembled that day, the other tutors and I explained that we’d be learning some new things about Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
One child interrupted, “Oh I’ve heard about Kwanzaa! Isn’t it a Mexican holiday?”
The adults in the room immediately broke out in chuckles and shook our heads, but the kids looked on with confused faces, waiting for an answer. They really didn’t know anything about Kwanzaa.
I shrugged it off since for elementary-aged kids who are just getting a handle on learning about the world and its diversity, it can be easy to get cultural holidays and celebrations mixed up.
However, as the month of February started, we shifted our focus to black history. We began discussing the iconic Martin Luther King, Jr.
“He freed the slaves!” a student shouted.
I couldn’t help but to slap my palm to my forehead in amazement, and again, shake my head. I was more than a little disappointed that our young group of mainly black children either didn’t seem to know anything about what I considered a huge part of black culture, or had it greatly confused with something else.
Was there a disconnect from previous generations until now? Something is clearly causing this confusion in the youngest among us.
Black history is taught in schools in February, but what about the other 11 months out of the year?
Perhaps if black children were taught about their history year-round, they wouldn’t be quite so confused and misinformed about it in the future.
I looked for some answers and opinions from a few local black parents.
They expressed that black history is unequivocally important to us and should be taught year-round.
Shuna Mast is a mother of two young girls: Andrea, who is in daycare, and Anorah, who is in kindergarten. Mast is happy that Black history is taught in schools, but believes that 28 days is simply not enough.
“I would love if my children can learn black history throughout their education from kindergarten to high school every month and not only during the month of February,” Mast said. “But I don’t solely depend on the school system to teach everything and do not expect them to do so because the foundation is at home.”
For example, every morning, she has a pep talk with her children before sending them off to school, and they repeat her affirmations.
“The first phrase from my mouth is, ‘I am black and I am beautiful!’ My daughters understand their ethnicity and they are proud of it. As they get older I hope that they realize that those seven words together will get them far and prompt them to ask more questions and seek more knowledge of what it means to be a black girl and woman in society.”
Ashley and Jeff Hallman are the parents of Kylie, a middle schooler. They’ve already seen changes in how they learned about black history when they were younger.
“Yes, learning of our heritage is different now today, information is more digital or socially spread through media and outlets that we did not quite encounter,” Jeff said.
Ashley said it gives the younger generation a chance to discover elevating information that would have previously been hard to find.
“The books in our (school) libraries were limited to bios of Dr. King but not of Malcolm X. Books written of Rosa Parks but not of Marcus Garvey and James Baldwin,” she said. “Profound black writers were hidden from us, it seems, yet the curriculum for us then was to read books like Huckleberry Finn.”
Dr. Amber Cook and her husband, Jason, have two small children.
Despite the historic win of President Barack Obama in 2008, the political climate seems to have changed over recent years in Amber’s opinion.
“I think that racial tensions are higher now than they were when I was a child, and celebration of black history was a lot less controversial than it is now, which is unfortunate,” Amber said.
However, she said that is why consistent black history education is imperative.
“It is important for us to highlight the achievements we have made as a people over time, and celebrate those accomplishments with our children, so they can recognize how incredible it is to be black, and how much they can accomplish to continue to shatter the barriers that once did and continue to exist for our people,” she said.
Parents I spoke with want their children’s culture and history to be well-known, cherished, and continually taught in order to uplift them. However, there often are people who think that simply having a black history month is divisive or even racist. To those people, Mast shares the words of Tina Lawson, mother of singers Beyonce and Solange Knowles:
“I think part of it is accepting that it is so much beauty in being black. It is such beauty in black people and it really saddens me when we are not allowed to express that pride in being black and if we do then it is considered anti-white. NO! We are just pro black and that’s okay. But what is irritating is when someone says, ‘they are racist’ or ‘that’s reverse racism’ or ‘they have a black history month well, we don’t have a white history month.’ Well, all we have ever been taught is white history so why are you mad at that? Why does that make you angry? That is to suppress me and to make me not be proud.”
Learning to be proud of who you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going is essential for Black children in order to grow into well-educated and confident adults. Having access to their history every day of the year is a good way to do just that.