Why Do We Celebrate Black History Month?: A Message To Our Students, from a Black Educator and a White Educator

[This message was originally shared in front of a live group at Lower School Chapel on Tuesday, February 11, 2020.

Miss Smith is a kindergarten teacher who identifies as a Black woman, and I am a teacher librarian who identifies as a White woman. We collaborated on this chapel to help answer some of the questions that we have heard from our students regarding Black History Month, and to share our joy, pride, and friendship with the community.

As students entered the space, this slideshow was playing. The background music is Brown Skin Girl, by Beyoncé, Wizkid, and Saint Jhn.]

 


 

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Miss Smith:  Good morning! First of all I want to say to you all happy Black History Month. I say happy, because Black History Month is a celebration! The month of February cannot hold all of our history, but there is something about this month that makes me feel such pride. Pride in my skin, pride in my hair, and pride in my people. It’s like wearing a fresh pair of J’s and feeling like you can fly like Mike. It’s like listening to Brown Skin Girl, the song that was just playing, and knowing there is a song made just for me, my beautiful daughter, and all brown skinned girls. It’s like re-adjusting my crown, these beautiful locs, every two weeks and smelling the freshness of the oil and feeling the hands pouring love into each one.

Ms. Fitz: As a person who identifies as white, Black History Month used to be really confusing for me. I had some of the same questions that we hear from our students in the hallways. Questions like, Why do we celebrate Black History Month? Why do Black people get their own month? And before we answer those, I want to make sure that you know that school is a safe place to ask those questions! It’s the perfect place to ask, actually. We’re so glad you’re questioning and wondering. If you didn’t ask such thoughtful questions, we wouldn’t be up here sharing today.

Miss Smith: Before we answer those questions, I want to talk and let you know about what it means to be Black. Some people think that black means bad, that it means darkness, that it means different. It is sometimes the crayon that gets neglected in the box, the paint that dries hard for fear it will ruin the others. But Black is beautiful. Black is powerful. Black is abundant. Black is abundant! Abundant is a word that describes something that is available in large amounts. Black history is large, it is wide, and it is rich.

Ms. Fitz: I love the way you said that, Ms. Smith. Black is beautiful and powerful and abundant. And I know that that doesn’t mean that white is any less beautiful and powerful. Remember Mr. Raffinan’s chapel, same same but different? Ms. Smith and I have many things that are the same. We both love reading. We both love big conversations with lots of questions. Same, same. We have lots of things that are different, too. My hair is purple and shaved on the bottom, and Ms. Smith’s hair is dark brown and she wears it in locs. My skin is a peachy golden color, like the inside of an almond. Ms Smith’s skin is almond brown too, but like the outside of an almond. Different! And we love that. We are different, and we are both beautiful and smart. Ms. Smith being beautiful and smart doesn’t mean that I am less beautiful and smart. You are beautiful and smart, too. There is enough for all of us.

Miss Smith: Now, to the question of why we celebrate Black History Month. Black history month is a time, like others we have, to slow down and peek into someone else’s window. It is a time to learn and connect with those who may not celebrate the same holidays as you. Who listen to different music that bops, eat different delicious foods, and style their hair in sometimes gravity defying ways. It is a time to highlight our culture, our accomplishments, and have our stories be told, and heard. From Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be allowed to be a congresswoman, to Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman to be allowed to go into space, to Lisa Leslie, the first WOMAN of any color to dunk a basketball in a WNBA game. These are the heroes who I grew up with. Black history is abundant; it is large and wide spread, and to me black has always been rich and beautiful.

Ms. Fitz: From a different perspective, I didn’t hear any of those names growing up. In my school, we didn’t spend much time learning about famous Black figures in American history at all, in February or any other month. It can be confusing to see Black History Month when there’s no month that’s labeled White History Month. Isn’t it unfair to celebrate some people more than others? This question really made me think. I realized that when I learned about history in school, the figures that I saw every month, the ones that made the rules and the discoveries and changed the world, all looked the same. Close your eyes and picture George Washington, Neil Armstrong, Thomas Jefferson, and the Wright Brothers. Do you notice what they all have in common? They are all men with white skin. They have done important things but… does that mean that only men with white skin have done important and exciting things? Lots of people of color have done important and exciting things too, but people don’t always include them in history books and lessons.

Miss Smith: A man named Carter G. Woodson realized the same thing. He realized that no one in his history classes looked like him. So he created Negro History Week in 1926. But there was too much history and celebration to fit into just one week! So in the 1970’s, Negro History Week grew to become Black History Month, a month long celebration.  During Black History Month, we spend extra time celebrating Black people that have done amazing things and made life better for all of us. Black History Month is always growing and changing because Black History is alive! It’s 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We’re making Black history right now, standing here together! And you’re a part of it, too. I am black history, Ms. Monty [the Head of the Learning Village] is black history, and when Dr. Graves arrives [our new Head of School, beginning in summer 2020] she will create new history too. What a proud moment it is today, to stand here and talk about black history while we create it together.

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Ms. Fitz: Now that we know why and how we celebrate Black history, let’s talk about some Black history celebrations in our school and hallways. You may have noticed a display in the hallway outside of the library with words in black and red. This display is all about amazing smart, talented, and brave Black people – some from history and some that are doing amazing things right now! We have some experts here to teach you a little bit more.

[At this point, students in kindergarten through fourth grade took turns standing at the microphone and speaking about their heroes, including Muhammad Ali, Black Lightning, Dr. Mae Jemison, and Kendrick Lamar. I wish I had a transcription of their proud and inspiring words!]

Miss Smith: There are so many more famous figures from history on this display, and we hope you’ll take the time to learn about each one of them. There is also some empty space on our display. We did this on purpose! It’s your turn to add to the celebration. When you go back to your homeroom today, we want you to brainstorm… what figures from Black history inspire you? Do you love watching Serena Williams play tennis? Are you thinking a lot about Kobe Bryant’s legacy since he tragically passed away? Maybe you’re thinking about your hard-working cousin, your amazing coach, or your loving grandma! We want to know who inspires you.

Ms. Fitz: Jot down a note or draw a picture about your Black history hero – or heroes! – and add them to our community art. Create your notes or drawings in your classroom, or you can find markers in the hallway right under the display. It’s your chance to teach our school community about who inspires and challenges you. We want our celebration of Black history to be loud, colorful, and full of joy, so we hope you’ll help!

Miss Smith: Our closing hymn today is all about the light that each one of us carries inside of our heart and soul. We believe there is a “little light” inside each of us that makes each of us. For some, it is a light that makes them kind and friendly, that shows that they are really curious, or that they love animals, music or art. For others, their very special light is a commitment to helping others, making sure that people are treated fairly, and having the courage to stand up for what is right. Each person sharing his or her “light” helps us to appreciate and respect the little light that is different in each of us and bonds us together in “common” unity.

Ms. Fitz: This song has three verses. The first is all about your special light, and letting it shine. The second is about taking it with you wherever you go, so that your light can brighten and help others. And the third and final final verse is about how sometimes, people might try to blow out your light. It might be because you are different, because they want their light to be the brightest. The truth is that not everyone will recognize or appreciate your little light… and some people will want to keep the world dark. But just like the song says, we hope that you’ll let your light shine. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” Your light is beautiful and powerful. And if we all put our light together? Wow!

This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Everywhere I go
I’m gonna let it shine
Everywhere I go
I’m gonna let it shine
Everywhere I go
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Don’t you try to blow it out
I’m gonna let it shine
Don’t you try to blow it out
I’m gonna let it shine
Don’t you try to blow it out
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

 


 

See more Black History Month resources here.

I’m on a journey towards becoming a better antiracist educator. You can join me here.

3 thoughts on “Why Do We Celebrate Black History Month?: A Message To Our Students, from a Black Educator and a White Educator

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