Deesha Philyaw is a freelance writer and adjunct professor in the Master of Professional Writing Program at Chatham University. She is a black co-parenting mom of two girls, ages 7 and 12, one of whom is adopted, and stepmom of two girls, age 12 and 14. Deesha has written a series of blogs for us to help celebrate Black History Month throughout February. Please, read Part 1 of It’s Okay To Be A Token. Really.
And when we invest our time and resources consistently and strategically, we ourselves become “experts”. In our hands, even a “token” effort can blossom into something richer. We aren’t offended when our child’s teacher calls and asks if we’ll “do something” for the class for Black History Month. Sure, she’s calling because our child is black, and she’s presuming that you’ve got all sorts of black stuff just lying around the house. Flip it and appreciate that she’s open to you and your ideas, and that you’ll have an opportunity to enrich not only your child’s education, but her peers’ as well.
Bonus: Your kid will likely be thrilled that you’re coming to class and doing something Important (unless she’s in middle school in which case, plan an all-school event with the art teacher at which your child can pretend she doesn’t know you, as per usual). You may not be a black history expert, but you get to play one in your child’s class. You get to ask important questions. You get to help the next generation explore their questions and ideas about culture and justice, about the past and the present, and about the future which is theirs for the shaping.
What does this look like in practice? The possibilities are endless. When my now-6th grader was in 3rd grade, her teacher really did invite me in to “do something” for Black History Month. At the time, my daughter was one of two black girls in a grade with a little over 30 students total, in 2 classes. There were less than 10 other non-white or biracial children. The teacher gave me no specifics, so I was free to do whatever I wanted, within the allotted 45 minutes. I did not want the presentation to be an add-on, so I thought about what units the children were currently studying and how I might piggy-back on one of them. They were wrapping up a unit on the history of Pittsburgh, so I chose a book of photographs by Charles “Teenie” Harris, a black Pittsburgher who in the 1930s, ‘40s and beyond chronicled the diversity of black life in our city. The collection includes pictures of jazz greats and baseball greats, children playing and crime scenes, black Pittsburghers who appear well-to-do, and others who don’t.
With the help of another black mom, we introduced the kids to the age-appropriate idea of Pittsburgh’s history as the story of Pittsburgh, and how Teenie Harris told Pittsburgh stories through his photographs. And just as the story of Mrs. S’s class wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t tell Arman’s story, and Jacob’s story, and Katie’s and Taylor’s and Hannah’s…so too the story of Pittsburgh (or any place) isn’t complete unless everyone’s story is included. This, we told them, is why we celebrate Black History Month and other awareness Months: to make sure that everyone’s story is told.
We then wrote poems and short stories, imagining the lives of the people in Teenie Harris’s photographs. Afterward, the 3rd grade teachers went on to incorporate Teenie Harris’s photos into the social studies curriculum, and their students have taken part in community programs related to Harris’s work, sponsored by the August Wilson African American Culture Center and the Carnegie Museums.
During Black History Month the following year in 4th grade, with the same group of students, I introduced them to the poems of Langston Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance artists, as part of their regular poetry unit.
Please come back to read the other articles Deesha has shared for Black History Month, including Beyond Rosa and Martin. We appreciate her contributions.