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I am forty-four-years-old.
I have been a social studies teacher for 23 Septembers.
I have been a student of history all of my life.
I have cared about civil rights forever.
But, before this February, I have never celebrated Black History Month.
I am both ashamed of my ignorance and enlightened by this experience–it is an uncomfortable mixture of growth and regret.
On Thursday, February 15, 2018, a day after seventeen people were killed in a mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, I was presented with the cure to our nation’s ills: unity through the arts.
Just hours after one of the worst mass shootings in United States’ history, over forty students performed songs, poems, and dances for over three hundred people. Their message: black history is American history. Their medium: the arts. Their goal: connection.
All day I ran around the town collecting donations from local businesses–the celebration of Black History involved performance and dinner. It was like putting on a wedding, but I didn’t know whether we would have 100 or 300 guests. Preparing for the celebration included parents, teachers, members of the UMOJA Step Team, student technicians, custodians, and administrators.
The program stated 6 pm for the commencement of the Black History Month Celebration, but as the team captain said: “Black people don’t arrive on time.” I grew nervous that the program would run long. My role was to read an introduction and hand-off the single microphone to each performer when needed. My speech included a piece I had shared with the kids at a pizza party after their first Step Team performance of the school year. They asked me to read it to the audience at the Black History Celebration, but I was worried about how it might translate from a pizza party to a formal event. When the captain snooped on my laptop, reading my revision, she was critical. She told me that my speech needed less Mrs. Brown and more Momma Brown. I informed her that she was the team captain, not my captain. However, I took her recommendation to heart and made sure Momma was part of my introduction.
My speech highlighted the uniqueness of the performers: the members of the high school step team. The students decided that the theme for the evening would be: “Pride in Our Roots.” Pride is an apt word. They are young people to be proud of because they have demonstrated leadership, commitment, and dedication. They have renewed my faith in humanity.
My speech also highlighted the goal of Umoja, the Swahili word for unity. I pointed out that Umoja (or unity) is our destination. Education is the road that we travel together to reach equality. Black History is part of our collective American story, one that often goes untold.
After a short video from Camille Brown’s Ted Talk on the history of social dance, a select few members of the team came on stage performing a traditional step dance. It was a great transition and demonstrated the roots of which the students were celebrating.
Dance and song performances followed that were “throwbacks” to the eighties and nineties. The older members of the crowd enjoyed knowing the songs and sang along.
The two poems celebrated black females and discussed the issues facing black people in America today. We debated using the “n” word as the poem had written. We opted for the PG rating, but I still feel like that might have been unnecessary censorship.
The last song concerned me. The group had asked if they could perform the song “Colors on the Ground,” by Trevor Jackson. During rehearsals, I cried. Every damn time. The kids told me not to cry. They reassured me that it was okay, but I could not help but see each of them as the next Trayvon Martin. Now, these kids are mine, and I can’t fathom losing them.
However, I am so glad that they ended the Black History Celebration with a song of both protest and unison. As one student sang in the spotlight of the stage lights, the remainder of the group walked from the back of the auditorium with skittles and Arizona Ice Tea in the pockets of their hoodies. They raised their hands and put their hoods up as they acted out the lyrics. The mood was pensive but collective. It was like three hundred souls agreed that there was an issue, but our presence at this Black History Celebration was part of the answer to the problem of racism, hate, and police brutality. For a moment, the students, the school, and the community rejoiced, reflected, and moved to the sounds of UMOJA!
After the student performers enjoyed applause, we all stormed the cafeteria where my colleagues had decorated the tables and organized the food. The mood was high and the food disappeared quickly. I was able to meet my student’s family members, making genuine connections. It felt like a family reunion! There was laughter, smiles, and goodwill.Black History Month Celebrations could bridge divides. Click To Tweet
As I drove home exhausted, I had an epiphany: Black History Month Celebrations could bridge divides. The answer to disconnection is education. If we accept our differences as part of our collective story, maybe we can define our values. Perhaps through our children, we can make strides toward the real American Dream: the opportunity for all in a safe and nurturing climate.