How would our lives be if Black Americans were completely left out of our nation’s history? What if textbooks, biographies, and never mentioned with any significance to America or we, as citizens, continue to be unaware of who these people are/were and what they have contributed to America? How would YOU feel if you learned about the heritages of every other group of people in school, except none of them ever look like you or your family?
Schools are DEDICATED SETTINGS FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING, where intelligence, enhanced by the natural and innate curiosity of the mind’s of children, thrives as it is supported by gathering new information. Information that is given to children, among other effects on the brain and comprehension, helps them to make sense of the world around them. As the brain is filled with more information, we are providing the building blocks for developing self awareness, identity and purpose. Essentially, the way we contribute to self awareness and identity of students, as diverse individuals, is through our interactions with them. The way we communicate with children is important, as we send messages about their worth, and value, and capacity to learn and achieve. We help them discover their unique gifts and abilities, and our communication with them tells them that they have great potential and we believe in them and their potential. It’s not just how we communicate, but what we communicate.
Equally important to a child’s development of self esteem, and identity formation is when we illustrate the possibilities of their potential by introducing notable figures who have contributed to the world and influenced the knowledge we acquire and the way we navigate the world. Students learn about many different people who’ve influenced and left an indelible footprint in the fields of math, English language arts, science, and even music and art.
Every grade level, and every year, students are assigned to do research projects, complete biographical essays, and are charged with fact-finding missions. All assignments are appropriately aligned with the common core, but there is an absence of influential African Americans whose lives and life stories are taught, told, or talked about. Hence, there’s no one very interesting or appealing to a young black boy. His interests may lie elsewhere, and there aren’t many people who look like him that will inspire him. It’s boring, and not relevant in his life, his reality. Usually, when we give assignments, students are given a choice from an array of persons on the ‘allowed’ list to research. On those lists, there is nobody who ‘speaks to him’. Slowly but surely, he becomes disenchanted with class and ….learning at school.
If you were to ask an African American student, a boy, about the historical figures in history that were black like him, he would be unable to name three, and then rattle off names of music entertainers or sports players. What I’m talking about is their own historical figures; they aren’t taught about them. So they don’t know any existed, and their own genealogical historical knowledge is equally limited. So you ask: Does your mother and father tell you about important black people at home? Listen very closely:
“If my mom doesn’t know any more important figures besides MLK, Rosa Parks, and maybe President Obama, and they won’t teach me about the lives of others who also look like me in school, then how will I know that I can become a Doctor, a Lawyer, or an Astrophysicist? It seems that there never have been many, and the ones that they do teach about in school, made contributions during slavery, and maybe one or two after slavery. All I see are hip hop artists, sports players, and a few actors who look like me.
What if I don’t really like to play sports, and I don’t want to become a rap star or actor? Then what can I become? Lots of my friends’ brothers went to jail, and some of my friends have started to sell drugs, or are in gangs. Is that what my options are? I think, I KNOW that I am smart. I get good grades, and do well in school. I like to read, but the library has almost nothing about or written by black people, and the library in my neighborhood has few books, too. Sometimes, I am even scared to go to the library near my house, because kids tease me and call me names. They are kids who aren’t really that good in school. I remember seeing them in the principals office a lot. Sometimes their moms were there, too. It seems that they are always in trouble, but they hardly ever show up in school anymore. I think they dropped out or something.
When I was six, I thought that I wanted to be a doctor, but I don’t know any in my neighborhood, my family or friends…..so what’s the use ? Why should I hold on to that dream? It’s not like I have a chance at all. Maybe, I’t even try anymore. I get bored in my classes anyway. I want to read about black people, and all they teach is about everybody else. When I raise my hand in class and ask the teacher whether any blacks ever made a mark in math or science, they give the same answer: George Washington Carver, and then they tell me that I am being disruptive. I just want to know about somebody else like me. I AM NOT TRYING TO BE FUNNY. So, nowadays, my teachers don’t like me, and say that I am a trouble maker.
There is one class that I love, and that is my English class. The teacher listens to me, lets me read to the class, and lets me write . I love to write stories, poetry, and novels-I think that I want to write, but I still want to be a doctor, though. I keep that to myself, cause it isn’t cool. I will tell you a secret, and promise you won’t tell anyone. I am thinking about dropping out of school and just do what the other kids do. They told me that school sucks, and their teachers used to yell at even made fun of them in front of the other kids in class. That is SO not cool- especially with the ‘brothers’ where I’m from.”
They way that we learn about our past, and the people who hold any level of importance as told through life stories and other accountings is through the written word. Whether print or electronic records, the way to the past and the bridge to the future is through examination of where we came from-those who came before us. Everyone needs a hero. Every child needs a hero. Every culture needs a hero. Every race needs heroes. When you can look to the past, and find someone who looks like you, is of the same color, religious background, etc…. it can inspire. If a child feels as though they he, no potential to rise from their circumstances and achieve greatness, we give hope. It is encouraging and also affirms who we are when you discover others who’ve triumphed over adversity through great determination and perseverance. Or someone from humble circumstances, faced challenges and obstacles and barriers, yet accomplished great things in life. Children today, contrary to the obvious hunt for money, wealth and power, want to make a difference in the world most of all.
What kid will believe that they can make a difference, and rise above their circumstances in life, when they never get to see, learn or read about someone like them, who ‘made it’? Role models are supposed to be tangible people with whom we can relate. They look like us, faced similar challenges, grew up in similar social circumstances, and inspire us to believe that we too can become positive contributors to society. When the only success stories that you hear are those in sports or those who rose from drug dealer to rap star, where will your dreams of success lie?
How can we expect young black and brown children to want to stay engaged in learning at school if we aren’t offering them REAL stories about REAL people with whom they can relate and feel proud and affirmed? Are we afraid, or are we equally as ignorant to African American history as the students? If so, then don’t you think that the time has come to learn and then teach? We can learn together! Give them heroes!