January 21, 2008

White Kids And Black History

Why do white kids need to learn about Black History Month? Where is the value in it?

Folks will have their own opinions on the subject, but I think I know one of the most important reasons. It occurred to me while my daughter and my wife were working on organizing my daughter’s report on Dr. Maya Angelou.

Maybe you have your own ideas about why it is important for a white girl like my daughter to study the life of Dr. Angelou. I have heard all sorts of things about what a white person can understand about the life and struggle of a black person in this country. The most disturbing things I have heard focus on an inability to understand, to the point of impossibility.

That mindset is an obstacle in itself.but I want to answer people who say “why isn’t there an X history month” where you insert whatever for X. Certainly, the history of African Americans in this country is part of the history of this country, and there are many important moments in our history that are intertwined with the struggle for rights that people have endured. Just from an American history perspective, I think it is appropriate to examine “black history” in America. You could make a similar argument for other groups, but I think you would not have as strong an argument.

But I still don’t think that is the most important reason.

I don’t think I had given it much thought before. Yesterday I might have said to my daughter that her studies this month are important because we need to understand what happened to African Americans so that we can better understand their struggle. But that is a superficial explanation of something that needs to happen at a much deeper level. It smacks of preaching. it is not inspiring.

My daughter’s answer to “Why is Maya Angelou famous?” focuses on how her writing became popular, and how so many people read her story about the struggles she endured. If her writing did not connect with people, she would not be the figure she is today. And I think this is the key to this story.

Because every person endures his or her own struggle, and faces challenges, uncertainty, peril, fear and despair. We read the works of others to learn about them, but young people also need stories so that they can learn about themselves, the people they are becoming, and the people they could become.

By reading Dr. Angelou’s biographies, my daughter is learning what she has in common with this woman, not looking for differences. And so she is learning about herself, how she will deal with struggles. It barely matters that her struggles will be different; we all face our own. What matters is how we face them, and we can learn something from people who faced their struggles with dignity. What matters is not that we learn that we can never truly understand what she has gone through, but rather that we can understand because of what we share.

Learning about ourselves and our connection to other people improves us. We learn how we are alike, not just in our situations, or ancestry, or struggles, but in our ability to have pride in what is best about ourselves and keep dignity in our actions and interactions. When we internalize these lessons and they shape our behavior, we will have gained a deeper understanding that transcends one race or another. We won’t need to be taught the same lessons for this group or that group.

Some see a month of education as a sort of trophy (for good or ill, with pride or with disdain). Maybe we should forgive both of them their shortsightedness. We will learn human history during Black History Month.

Posted by James at January 21, 2008 10:49 PM
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I find a more general question interesting: Why is it important to learn about people that educators think you should learn about?

There are clearly "historical figures" that we should know about, for the reason of knowing why historical things happened the way they did. I have no question about whether we should learn about Marco Polo, or Adolph Hitler, or, well, for the next generation, George W. Bush.[1]

There are some authors and artists who have a similar aspect: they started a movement, or were otherwise instrumental in the history of literature, art, music, or whatever.

And then there are those who are just famous, but not pivotal. And those are the ones I wonder about. Your kids are learning about Maya Angelou, OK. Are they learning about, say, Langston Hughes also? Hughes is much more to my taste as an author and as a poet than Angelou is. But Maya Angelou is trendy, so we study her. Have we just randomly picked her as an example of a famous poet? Have we just randomly picked her as an example of a famous black American?

There're so many writers, artists, musicians, composers, poets, and so on... who are not among the few anointed by the education system, but are nonetheless worthy of study. It's too bad that most of our kids will never learn about them, unless they choose, themselves, to go into it in enough depth to get there.

[1] SOMEone is going to chide me for mentioning Hitler and Bush in the same sentence, as though I were comPARing them or something. Don't be silly. Just don't.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at January 22, 2008 12:34 AM

I can help a little with that particular mystery.

The kids were all assigned different people, and they will give presentations to the rest of the class on those figures. I can assume Langston Hughes is among those people, but I can't say for certain.

Restrictions, not the least of which is time, necessarily limit the breadth and depth of school education. It's up to parents to give their children a taste for self-education, and hope our children retain both their curiosity and an ability to follow through on their questions.

Posted by: James at January 22, 2008 12:55 AM

Any time I hear the "Why don't we have an X history month?" It's almost always some white person doing the "I'm so oppressed because I'm white" pity-party. Although I do hear people on the internet claim quite often that fat people are more oppressed than the blacks, jews, and anabaptists combined.

Whenever I run into the "Why don't we have White history month" these days I just say, "Yeah, and its so unfair that there's a WOMEN'S NBA. There's no MEN'S NBA!"

Posted by: David grenier at January 22, 2008 9:28 AM

If Maya Angelou is "trendy," she's one of the longest-running "trends" of my lifetime.

Posted by: Julie at January 22, 2008 11:18 AM

And kudos to the teachers for not waiting until *actual* Black History Month.

Posted by: Julie at January 22, 2008 11:20 AM

Interesting -- somebody who starts a movement is more important than somebody who doesn't? That reminds me of some modern art which is art because it started a movement, but is no longer the kind of art anybody creates because, as the cliche goes, your kid could do it. But it started a movement. Does that make it worthy of study vs. something that moves you?

I don't know that Maya Angelou started anything, although her autobiography was the first non-fiction best-seller by an African American woman. Did Maya Angelou start a consciousness about the suffering of Black Americans? Did she have to in order to be important? She certainly reached more people than any African-American woman before her.

I think it is very important to study biographies, because they teach us about the human condition and about ourselves, and that is basically what Maya Angelou's biography is about -- the human condition. It seems a little bizarre to dismiss such an interesting person as not worthy of study because she's "trendy."

Posted by: Maggie at January 22, 2008 12:19 PM

I'd like to chime in with another reason why it is important to have Black History month. This reason would also apply for having a Hispanic history month or a Native American history month.

Our history has been badly white washed. All the flaws have been removed from our historical icons so that kids get a very skewed view of where we came from.

Each of the minorities are on the receiving end of some of our less proud historical moments. But we can't say that we were wrong or mistaken. So, the impression created for the minority students, to an extent, is that we were justified and that they got what they deserved.

Having X History month gives them an opportunity to feel pride in our history. They get to identify with someone who contributed to a positive part of our country.

If history were more even handed, we might not need these months. But I'd say we are at least a generation away from that.

Posted by: briwei at January 22, 2008 12:23 PM

I agree, Maggie. But you also have to do some other research to find out if the biographer had any slant. For example, I read FDRs biography when I was in school and used to think very highly of him. Later, I found out that he was very anti-semitic. My view of him changed pretty soundly.

I'd like to think I could have been more forgiving of his flaws had I gotten them in context. Instead, I built him up in my mind. Then I found out he wasn't as great as I thought.

Posted by: briwei at January 22, 2008 1:19 PM

That's a sad story, Bri. I think it's important not to have hero worship for any one individual, but to learn about people who have/had traits you'd like to emulate and use their struggle as an example and inspiration. You have to accept people as a whole but you don't have to admire them as a whole. :-)

This biography that we have of Maya Angelou (we were only allowed one from the library, and K had only two weeks to prepare this thing (and most of that time she was working on a science project, sheesh)), was very unemotional and monotonous, which is not to say the biographer was completely absent from the book, but it didn't feel like it had any slant at all. "This happened to Marguerite. Then this happened. Then this happened." Argh! It couldn't have been less like the poet herself. :-) We also had a book of her poetry, which was so different from the dry biography!!

But now, a new science project, she's going to be in a science fair! She's never done that before. I think I'm more excited than she is, but I think once she does it and she gets to have a booth, she'll be excited again. She loved having a booth when she did another project back in fourth grade (research project), and really learned from the other kids' booths and planned for the next year. Then they stopped doing that. :-P

Posted by: Maggie at January 22, 2008 2:29 PM

Checking back... and I see that I was too brief, and, so, unclear. I didn't mean to "dismiss" Maya Angelou with the word "trendy", and I'm sorry it came across that way. And I wasn't saying that kids shouldn't be studying her. I was just musing, in general, about how we make these selections, and about how unfortunate it is that we have to leave out a lot of worthy alternatives.

That's all.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at January 25, 2008 11:21 AM

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