During Black History Month, helping students understand their role in history

Editor’s Note: The U.S. recognizes February as Black History Month, prompting many educators to address the extensive history of the African diaspora. But it is important to show students that this history, and a larger conversation about racial equality in the U.S., are not confined to the classroom, teacher José Vilson writes below.

Black history isn’t just history for many communities. For older generations, these conversations didn’t happen in segments for round-the-clock news coverage, but in our homes, on the street corner, at our social events, in our churches and in our schools. We lived this stuff because it was a means of survival.

teachersloungeOn the morning of Nov. 25, the day after a St. Louis jury did not indict Darren Wilson, I forwent the lesson plan in my math class for a conversation about how the students felt. At first, it felt natural to tell the students what to feel and how to feel about it. I’m the teacher and that’s what teachers do. But in the interest of empowering them, I let them speak.

“It’s like, you see how when we walk down the street, we don’t know if we’re going to get shot or killed or anything like that, because the people that are supposed to protect us aren’t doing that all the time.”

“What this makes me think is that this America isn’t for all, but some.”

“I honestly don’t know how to feel, but I definitely feel scared.”

The students shared their frustrations, their pains, their incongruous visions for a better America. Their language for these moments had neither the academic lingo of race theory, nor the breadth of socioeconomic and political implications of the novels and textbooks we use for these discussions, but they do encompass “history,” born of struggle, confusion and passion, and connected to their experiences in America.

I originally pulled back as much as I could from interjecting. At one point, one of the students said, “Mr. Vilson, how do you feel about this? Can you tell us more about what happened?”

I wanted to give the students a 10-minute lecture on the fact that groups used to lynch people of color for public display, that Emmett Till was around their age when he was savagely beaten and killed for supposedly flirting with a white women, that at their age, I saw Rodney King get beaten on video for trivial matters, and that Amadou Diallo, the man who police officers shot at 41 times after mistaking a wallet for a gun, worked in a grocery store I frequented in high school.

Instead, I said that I too knew how they felt, and I too saw what they saw, and I too wanted justice for the murders of young men and women of color. I also mentioned how their feelings might be further complicated by having relatives in the police and armed forces. I don’t believe they are bad people, but, as with anything, sometimes the jobs we do puts us at odds with the people we want to be. That includes teachers. The conversation showed me why highlighting their voices mattered more than my own.

As a result of grassroots work over the years, the national conversation has shifted from an incident-by-incident tally to a maelstrom of discussions about race and the executive branch, inserting “Black Lives Matter” into the national zeitgeist. And with an ever-diverse student body in our schools, the murders of Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Eric Garner and so many others have left plenty of unrest in America’s classrooms, and made many educators turn to their friends of color and anxiously say, “OK, what do I do here?”

Black History Month, Latino Heritage Month, Asian-American History Month, and other such-named periods matter because my kids feel anger at the situations that happen to people who look like them, but they rarely see how we got here. When Carter G. Woodson created “Negro History Week,” which then became Black History Month, he didn’t envision it becoming a permanent fixture on our calendars, but a gateway to interjecting black people’s histories into school curriculum.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t fully come to fruition. If anything, the idea of a multicultural curriculum created groups who would prefer we teach a “plain-ol’ curriculum.” But this curriculum is often bereft of people of color as anything more than slaves, indentured servants, victims of forefathers and freedom fighters from half a century ago.

History isn’t just a set of facts to memorize. Black History Month should be an activation of our students’ agency, to understand the triumphs and follies anywhere and to hopefully do better than we did. As our classrooms get more diverse (and our teaching staffs less so), we ought to push for all people, and not just people of color, to see different faces use their voices to make a better world through their own agency.

Students ought to have inroads into the curricula, ways in which they learn their histories and become empowered by the literature. Our histories aren’t set in stone; if anything, through their work, students have a voice in this history. They are simultaneously propelled by it and creators of it.

History shows us that people before us found solutions that helped advance the least-advantaged and inched toward a more just society. But if history does not live and breathe in the present, then, to paraphrase George Santayana, we are the ones condemned to repeat the past.

José Vilson is an eighth-grade math teacher at IS 52 in New York City. He is an activist, author of the book “This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education,” and writer at TheJoseVilson.com.