See what I did there? I capitalized the letters A-S-S. That spells ass. Is that clever or what?
How does she do it? How does she think of these witty puns?
On Thursday my kids’ school (where I also work) had a Black History Month assembly. Wait what? February is Black History Month… Thursday was March 2nd. Yeah… close enough though right? Better late than… whatever.
A lot of the kids in grades 1-5 participated in some way, which was cool. My son’s 1st grade class sang “This Little Light of Mine,” complete with hand gestures. Other kids sang songs about Rosa Parks, MLK Jr, and Harriet Tubman. One group of kids did some interpretive dance thing to the song “Lift Every Voice.” One class talked about different black people in the civil rights movement (MLK Jr and Rosa Parks mostly), another class shared their personal thoughts about various black people of the past, another read Langston Hughes poems, and the assembly ended with everyone singing “We Shall Overcome” together. The assembly was led by the art and music teachers (both white women), who had clearly put a lot of work into the performances. It was a pleasant event. The closest anyone got to acknowledging our long history of white people’s violence against black people was when one of the 5th graders shared, “I think people should learn about Emmett Till.”
Let me preface this by saying that I am a white woman and I have always been a white woman and this perspective is coming from a white woman. I do not attempt to speak for any black person or people. (Black people reading this, I sincerely hope you will contact me and correct me if I need to be corrected or confronted for anything I say here.) But I had some issues with the assembly and I think white people need to call this kind of shit out, so here are this one white lady’s thoughts about this particular assembly and the many others like it I’ve seen:*
1.) As a friend of mine pointed out, the songs chosen were all religious songs. While they have a place in black history and liberation, this is public school. I don’t personally have a problem with those songs being sung as a tribute to what they mean and have meant to the black community, but there needed to be some secular songs in there as well, not only because of the separation of church and state (which is a pretty big goddamn issue), but because only including gospel music in an assembly about black history is too narrow a representation. Not only are there many other forms of “black music,” but not all black people are Christians.
2.) As I stated above, the two white women who put this all together did a fine job with the performances. They worked hard on the assembly and I like that they got so many students involved in talking about equality and justice. But I do not think we can keep dancing around the fact that white people (and only white people) leading an assembly about black history is not appropriate. There are many black students and parents (and a few black staff members) in our school community. The white women running this show should have talked to actual black people. They should have asked if they wanted to be involved (but also needed to have been willing to hear “no” and not act entitled to people’s time), or at least if they had any feedback or ideas to contribute. They should have asked actual black people how they wanted their people’s history to be represented instead of doing the same old whitewashed version of black history white people have always told to make other white people feel comfortable. And then they should have listened to what those people told them. The unfortunate truth is that white people** are uncomfortable talking about race, even when talking about an assembly that is EXPLICITLY ABOUT RACE.
3.) Black history is more than Harriet Tubman (and Abraham Lincoln… oh, we love to bring up Abraham Lincoln) freeing slaves, Rosa Parks staying seated, MLK Jr. having a dream, and Langston Hughes writing poetry. And don’t get me wrong: ALL THOSE PEOPLE ARE INCREDIBLE AND IMPORTANT. But this simplified version of what “black history” means is not only played out, but I think it’s harmful. To talk about black history as if it ended with the civil rights movement is inaccurate at best, and the ways we misrepresent the civil rights movement to children is a fucking travesty (IMHO).
Yes, of course, let’s recognize and celebrate the progress that was made in the 1960s and express how glad we are that people of all different colors go to school together now. But let’s stop acting like shit got better and shit is cool now. Let’s stop acting like desegregation just happened. Let’s acknowledge that most white people were either actively trying to sabotage this progress or doing absolutely nothing. It’s a hard truth to face, but isn’t our goal to avoid the mistakes of the past? Shouldn’t we be saying to children: Be better?
Additionally, the Montgomery bus boycott is a truly inspiring piece of American history and kids should be learning about it. But as part of this, we should be directly teaching that boycotting is a powerful way to make change, and encouraging kids to think about the fact that standing up to oppression requires more than being nice to people. We have to stand up and take action. THAT is the lesson of the boycott (IMHO).
We need to stop watering down black history (and history in general) in schools to make it more palatable for white people. Can we please stop doing this?
In the same way that people conveniently forget that MLK Jr. was about more than racial harmony and peace and instead use him as a tool of oppression by selectively quoting him and only using quotes that reflect that narrow version of him (thereby delegitimizing other forms of radical activism), we simplify black history by focusing almost entirely on the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and we present it as if the end of legal segregation was the end of racism itself. IT WASN’T. (ALSO I KNOW THAT WAS A REALLY LONG RUN-ON SENTENCE. I’M SORRY ABOUT THAT.) It also wasn’t the end of the contributions of black people to our society, which we should be recognizing and celebrating! Black relevance did not end when MLK Jr. was assassinated.
(For more on how we exploit the legacy of MLK Jr., please read the piece below by Ijeoma Oluo. It is so right on and important and is much more worthy of your time than my blog, so if you stop here I understand. ALSO, LET ME JUST SAY THAT THE BLACK HISTORY MONTH ASSEMBLY WOULDN’T HAVE HAD TO RELY SO HEAVILY ON MLK JR. IF WE HAD HAD A GODDAMN MLK ASSEMBLY IN JANUARY LIKE EVERY SCHOOL FUCKING SHOULD.)
The Exploitation of Martin Luther King’s Legacy by White Supremacy
Let us also not forget that many of the people filling elementary school cafeterias to celebrate people like Rosa Parks and MLK Jr. are the same people who look at our situation today and say things like, “We can’t go breaking laws just because we don’t like them,” or “Give the orange man-baby a chance,” or “Why are those people rioting?” Or “Why are you being so divisive? We need to be unified,” or “Well I think all lives matter.”(barf.) I bet many of the people who sat in that cafeteria with me the other day even criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem, which breaks absolutely no laws and is an effective and powerful form of peaceful protest. We don’t get to have it both ways. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks (and many others) broke laws. They broke laws because some laws were and are unjust. I want my children to learn that breaking laws is sometimes necessary when the laws themselves are oppressive and unjust. Trump’s immigration ban is a perfect example of this.
Celebrate the nonviolent resistance of the 1960s. But also recognize that a) non-violent resistance was not as simple as “peace and harmony and loving each other,” and b) there is plenty of current social activism we should be teaching about and actively supporting.*** (Hello, Black Lives Matter!!??) What people don’t seem to realize is that by staying “comfortable,” by prioritizing our own children’s innocence over honesty, we are playing the role of the white moderates of the 1960s, those who may not have been yelling racial slurs at Ruby Bridges (a 6-year-old child at the time) or attacking peaceful marchers with fire hoses, but remained silent about issues of injustice. Below is an excerpt from Letter From a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his thoughts about the “white moderate” (which I would describe now as the “white liberal”):
I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ “Councilor” or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direst action” who paternistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Read the whole letter here: Letter From a Birmingham Jail
AND ANOTHER THING (get off my lawn): If we’re going to talk about the civil rights movement as the defining moment of black history in this country, why aren’t we talking about Malcolm X? Angela Davis? (Many many others?) It’s a rhetorical question. I know why, and it’s bullshit. We also need to be honest with our children about the fact that people died for this cause. MLK Jr. and Malcolm X and Fred Hampton, etc. were gunned down for trying to fight for justice. I know people will say that it’s not age-appropriate to talk about that kind of violence, but I think there are age-appropriate ways to address it, and I think we need to, especially because police violence against black people is an ongoing problem and black people continue to be murdered. We need to stop prioritizing our own comfort and white children’s innocence over teaching actual social justice. Black parents have no choice but to confront these things with their children. The least we can do as white parents is educate our own children in an age-appropriate but honest way so that they don’t end up turning into moderate adults who refuse to recognize discrimination or do anything about it. Children can handle more than we give them credit for.
Break some unjust laws. Don’t celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and simultaneously spit on his legacy by choosing only to talk about how he wanted peace and racial harmony. That is not all he was about. He was about a fight for justice for black people. Progress doesn’t just happen. People have to fight.
4.) As a continuation of #3, why do we always talk about only the same few chosen black people (all from generations ago)? I am not a black person, but I find it trite and insulting, so I can only imagine how black people feel attending these assemblies. Again, black history did not start with Harriet Tubman and end with MLK Jr. Black history did not end in the 1960s. And it is SO much richer than the stories we continue telling in schools.
This would have been a great time to bring up the women from Hidden Figures, for example. That story is currently relevant, needs to be told and it’s not even controversial!
Gospel is not the only form of black music (hi, have you heard of jazz? Hip hop? R&B?). Langston Hughes is not the only black poet or author. There are SO MANY black politicians and activists and educators and musicians and doctors and athletes and writers and artists and scientists we could be recognizing. In fact, when the kids got up to do a dance number I got very hopeful for a moment that maybe we were going to see kids dance to music that was relevant to them, or at least more current. I was really hoping for some hip hop, or maybe even a Prince tribute, since he died last year. But I guess that might make a white person uncomfortable, or it doesn’t fit with our whitewashed narrative, so we stick to the slave-era gospel songs.
Black history is ongoing. The fight for equality is ongoing. Let’s teach that it’s ongoing. What an amazing opportunity this could have been to recognize and talk about Black Lives Matter as a current and powerful civil rights movement. Stop reinforcing the bullshit idea that we live in a post-racial society, and stop pretending the 4 sanctioned black stories are the only stories that should be told. We must stop protecting our own comfort at the expense of other people.
*I know that not all the things I’m mentioning here can be addressed in a 30 minute assembly. And I know a lot of these things need to be addressed by parents. But the assembly reflects the ways we often talk about black history in classrooms as well, if we talk about it at all. Also, these topics should be part of education EVEN WHEN IT’S NOT BLACK HISTORY MONTH. Black people are relevant and important even when it’s not February. Plus, the fact that we’re trying to fit “black history” into a 30 minute assembly is ludicrous anyway!
**I know I’m generalizing by saying “white people.” I know this does not apply to all white people. If it’s not about you, don’t make it about you. Also, it’s OK to be in different places with this stuff. You may have never thought about these things before. If that’s true, I especially appreciate you being here. I am a privileged-ass white person who has A LOT to learn. I am not an expert, just a person trying to figure some shit out, and if that’s you too, thank you so much for reading this. It’s OK to be wherever you are as long as you’re willing to get better. After all, what the hell is life for if not that?
***I’m not going to get into it here, but we also need to recognize that non-violent resistance is not the only way to fight injustice. As a current example, the antifa member who punched Richard Spencer* in the face so he couldn’t broadcast his hateful bullshit is a goddamn hero. I am all for non-violence when possible and when it’s effective, but if news outlets are going to give airtime to assholes like that, someone needs to shut that shit down. I am grateful for the person who was brave enough to punch that living piece of garbage in the face.
*The first time I typed this I accidentally typed Richard Sherman. Very different people. Please don’t punch Richard Sherman in the face. He is pretty great.