I grew up attending a diverse church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Our congregation was full of black, white, and bi-racial families. When I first started college, I attended a small Catholic university downtown. One of my favorite classes was Multiculturalism. The professor introduced me to a new way of thinking: She encouraged the class to question what we saw on television, read in magazines, and heard on the news. Some of the most important questions to ask are, “From whose perspective is this story being told?” and “Are all the players equally represented?”
I transferred to Belmont University in Nashville, where I still live now, to complete my degree in English. One of my favorite classes at Belmont was African-American Literature. We studied poetry, stories, and plays written by African-American authors such as Alice Walker, Phillis Wheatley, Chinua Achebe, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright. To read the words―the secret thoughts―of characters and authors I never knew existed before changed me. I realized how vital it is for each person to find her own voice – and how necessary it is for us to listen.
The celebration of Black History Month started in 1926 and became widely accepted in 1976. You may wonder why we honor this observance. Well, I know at least one of the reasons for this unique celebration. It’s because we need to be intentional about listening to the stories of our African-American brothers and sisters, past and present. Their stories are our stories…truly American stories. By taking the time to learn these stories our perspective about our big world changes. We see African-Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Caucasian Americans – all Americans – all people, even ourselves, differently yet more the same.
And we might be surprised as we read the words of those who were once silenced, to find our own voice.
Here are some ideas for how you can celebrate with your students:
1.) Read stories about Wilma Rudolph’s perseverance to become an athlete after battling polio, about George Washington Carver’s creativity with the peanut or about Ruby Bridges’ courage as she faced injustice. What do these stories speak to you? Ask your students to reflect and consider how these stories relate to their own lives, and also what new perspectives they encounter.
2.) Discover music and history by listening to Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Donny Hathaway. What are the major themes of their music? How did their songs represent the times in which they lived? What current artists are impacted by their sound?
3.) Watch and compare the representation of black families in television shows, such as Good Times from the 70s, Family Matters and Fresh Prince of Bel Air from the 90s, Tyler Perry’s House of Payne from the 2000s, and Blackish from today. (Episodes of each can be found on YouTube.) How is the family represented in each? How does this remind students of their own families? What new ideas do they see portrayed on screen?