By Heather Watts
When I graduated from Columbia University with a Master of Arts degree, I held the belief that teachers with similar educational backgrounds as I, serving the same student population as I, would hold the same beliefs about the importance of teaching diverse world-views in this country, and teaching about the history that is often erased to maintain a Euro-Western perspective.
At the time, I was teaching in Rochester, New York, and was in my second year of teaching. I was teaching in a charter school where the student population was 98% Black students, and our teaching population was 90% White. On Fridays, we had our community circle gatherings where we crammed into the bleachers and celebrated our work throughout the week, sang together, danced together, and spent time as a school family.
On one particular Friday, our school hosted a Black History Month assembly to kick off the celebrations for the month ahead. We listened to beautiful rhythms of local Black artists, felt the powerful words of various Black leaders from the Civil Rights era, and heard the stories of Black teachers and staff members from our school community. I can remember my students leaving the gymnasium excited about the next assembly, asking “Who is visiting us next week?”, “Can I sing a song at the next assembly?”, “Can my Grandpa come in to speak?” – there was so much excitement buzzing in the hallways. Fast forward to lunch time, and I am in the staff room with some colleagues, reflecting on our mornings. I began praising the work of the organizing committee for such an impactful assembly and sharing some of the incredible ideas my students were expressing. I vividly recall one of my teacher colleagues asking, “Can you imagine if we had a White History Month?”. I was flabbergasted, and I am pretty sure my mouth actually dropped. Working at a school where 98% of our students were Black, the need to celebrate such rich histories of Black folks, of Black excellence, of Black resilience, was of absolute importance – and to incorporate these voices beyond February, also of absolute importance.
My response to this colleague was one of emotion, but I don’t regret it, as I still believe this to be true: “White History Month is every day!”, I exclaimed. As I sit with this response in the present day, I reflect on the knowledge that our schools uplift and the many knowledges that are silenced, and valued as less. To center Black knowledge for one month of the year, the shortest month of the year, is an insult to Black genius, Black innovation, Black science, Black artistry, Black beauty, Black voice. I sit here and think to myself, these months (Black History, Indigenous History, etc.) mask themselves as “inclusivity” when in fact they work to marginalize and devalue the very voices they are trying to uplift. If we were truly committed to the inclusion of these voices, we wouldn’t need a special month to recognize them. These voices would live in our curricula, our governance structures, our policies, our organizational cultures.
As many of us parents are playing the dual role of teacher and parent, let us go beyond February, and challenge the knowledge that we center when working with our children. Let us take time to engage in some learning ourselves, as well as support the learning of our children.
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