You Can Opt Out Of Studying Black History, But You Can’t Opt Out Of Living It

The school in Utah that made headlines allowing parents to opt out of their children learning about Black History Month has backpedaled. Public outcry and the state’s curriculum standards apparently caused them to rethink the decision to let ignorant parents extend their family’s ignorance of history into the classroom.

We’re all part of Black history, this month and every month. Our wealth as a nation is rooted in the stolen labor of Black people.

Some of us own homes and got to attend college due to our white privilege protecting us in every encounter with police. And protecting our parents, who lived to raise us. Who got their GI benefits when Black GI’s did not. Is it unfair that we all benefit from the inventionsinnovations, and art created by Black people in the U.S. and beyond?

I’m engaged in a delightful education project with two bright 3 year olds in Oakland, California who watched firsthand last summer’s massive demonstrations demanding that Black Lives Matter. Police violence is somewhat abstract to my students, but the rage and determination of BLM supporters is not. Occasionally one of the kids will pick up a sign on a stick and tell me they are protesting adding “Black Lives Matter” or “No justice, no peace.”

So they have the motivation and the context for studying some of the key Black people in our nation’s history. They are old enough to understand when something is not fair, but not old enough to have heard of civil rights leaders MLK, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, or even former 49er Colin Kaepernick.

Yesterday a new book, Young Kap, arrived in the mail and was read with interest. Last week a book on the Negro Leagues in baseball that I borrowed from the local library was a hit; most of the text is over their head, but not the excellent paintings by Kadir Nelson that accompany it. 

Also popular with my students: picture book Touch the Sky about the first Black woman to bring home gold from the Olympics. Ever heard of her? Alice Coachman is also on the cover of a book by that name that I wrote surveying the stories of women whose names ought to go down in U.S. history for their achievements. It was illustrated by Ruby Pfeiffle, and her portrait of Coachman is on the cover.

I used to teach older students about Black history including African civilizations of ancient times, slavery in the Americas, Jim Crow, the Northern Migration,  and the long struggle for civil rights. But since Michael Brown’s murder sparked Black Lives Matter rising up to define the struggle against white supremacist violence supported by government I’ve been a reading specialist working with much younger kids. Still, I’ve continued educating myself e.g. watching the documentary Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and reading books by Black authors including a recent holiday gift from a family member, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

So this opportunity to teach Black history is especially welcome. It’s not just confined to the month of February, either.

As a mother many years ago I helped one of my sons who has Black ancestry prepare for a book day presentation in 5th grade. He had chosen to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and he dressed as Malcolm to deliver the historic speech, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us.” The white judges gave the prize to a girl dressed as Pippi Longstocking which made my son’s teacher mad. She felt the consensus of teachers and students was that my son had given the best presentation.

I felt my son learned a lot more by being penalized for appearing as a righteously angry, articulate Black leader. 

It was a teachable moment.