Editors Note: This guest post is part of the Blog Carnival of Blogging While Brown for Black History Month 2014. -M.P.
By Femi Lewis
One of the greatest aspects of teaching is that an educator is constantly learning. And through my experiences as an educator, it has occurred to me that the act of teaching are public, but the thoughts and actions of an educator are personal and public.
As I present this argument concerning the act of teaching being public and the thoughts and actions of an educator being personal, I can’t help but think of the first two decisions that I made when I decided to become a high school educator: my first decision was to teach Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the most violent and impoverished areas of New York City in a transfer high school for students between the ages of 16 and 21. My second decision would be to consistently integrate African-American literature and history in my curricula.
For some people, both decisions were puzzling. Yet, it was important for me to work with students who were struggling to finish high school because of my own experiences as a student: I was the student with tons of potential who decided to cut school more often than not. However, I was also a young woman who had parents who would effectively advocate for me even when I was not working to my fullest potential. No one was going to allow me to fail, and so, I did not. And I wanted to offer this same love and devotion to others.
My second decision, to integrate African-American history and literature came quite simply: it is what I knew and it is what I love and so naturally, it became second nature in my classroom.
One of my greatest concerns as an educator is students understand the importance of knowing history. Without knowledge of history, how can our students understand themselves? Therefore, I consistently created curricula that was palatable(applicable) to my students’ lives. I focus heavily on developing units on the African Diaspora—from literature to history—so that students can make connections between the content, themselves and the world.
For the next four years, my students read poems such as Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” to understand the concept of double consciousness. And we read novels such as Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple to understand the limitations as well as motivations of African-Americans during the Jim Crow Era. Finally, I developed a curriculum on the history of hip-hop culture to prepare students for college–they learned to navigate through lengthy news and feature articles and opinion pieces. They analyzed music videos as well as documentaries. They prepared presentations and of course, wrote a series of argument-based essays. In all of my classes, students often asked the question: “why are we reading this instead of Shakespeare, it’s not February.” And my response would often be: “why should we wait until February to read or learn something about ourselves?”
By my fourth and last year of teaching in Brownsville, my students stopped asking about February. Instead, they were not only learning African-American history through literature, but through films and documentaries, artist studies, theatrical productions and museum visits. They were arguing less about reading texts and writing essays and were focusing more on learning about themselves. It was a true learning experience not only for them, but for me as well.
During a visit to the Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, one of my students was able to visualize the trepidation associated with taking a literacy exam in order to vote. Another was able to read actual newspaper articles written about Rosa Parks’ arrest. I know that those moments of learning were vital to the growth of these young people–who before this visit and before my class–believed that all slave owners weren’t bad because that is what history had taught them was the truth.
African-American history should not be relegated to February and celebrating the work of a man such as Martin Luther King Jr., should not be considered a mere day off from work and school. Instead, African-American should be taught throughout English Language Arts and History curricula so that all students—regardless of race—can understand the important contributions that have been made to the United States by people of color. We live in a time when images of African-American women are simply headrolling twerkers or powerbrokers in the public sphere yet must serve as mistresses in their private lives. We live in a world where African-American men are hyper masculine beings in hip hop culture and sports OR dress up, mock elderly black woman and be laughed at by millions of viewers. And because we live in a world where things we visualize is considered a truth, it is important to consistently remind not only ourselves, but others of the trials and successes that African-Americans have endured. That’s how people learn the humanity of others–by learning about their struggles and their joys.
Now that I work in an different educational environment, my ability to teach African-American history has changed drastically. Working with younger students who are predominantly eastern European with a smattering of African-American, Latino and Asians, in a school that places absolutely no emphasis on multicultural education is at times difficult. For the African-American and Latino students, there is a hunger to learn something about themselves and a desire to feel some pride in their existence. However, for many of the other students, whose ideas of African-Americans are based on stereotypical archetypes, it has been a struggle.
Yet, there have been successes. Last year while teaching an argument unit on speeches, my students read Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Initially, students were resistant–”we know this speech, already,” they told me. “No, you don’t,” I said. “You know the last twelve lines. This speech is so much more powerful than what you think.” As we read the speech, my students–of all races–began to embrace its power. As one Russian student said during a class discussion, “King is essentially saying that African-Americans have been cheated out of the American Dream. That even though they weren’t slaves, they still weren’t free.”
And for all the struggles that I endured last year to teach the Harlem Renaissance and then King’s speech, I knew that it had been worth the fight–that student had realized the humanity of a race other than his own.
Femi Lewis is a teacher and writer in New York City. As an educator, she has written high school curricula on various topics in African-American history. Femi has written for publications such as Black Enterprise, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Kansas City Star and the Fort Worth Star Telegram and currently serves as the African-American History expert on About.com.