It shamed me to see the way so many White people honored Dr. King on MLK Day last month. For many, including myself at one point, Dr. King represents an idealized vision of a societal problem being solved without the discomfort of having to see oneself as a part of that problem.
Take for example our nation’s chief politician who joined in on the hypocrisy. On his way to the college football national championship game in Atlanta, he signed into law the establishment of a new national park in Georgia honoring Dr. King. This is, of course, after he called NFL players “sons of bitches” who ought to be “fired.”
Such hypocrisy and blindness is what we get when we fool ourselves into thinking our shameful history is behind us.
As a well-meaning White educator who tried to honor Black History Month in my daily lessons, I, too, would focus solely on the past. I would start with the Middle Passage and end with the civil rights movement, hopping over centuries of African civilizations and choosing to ignore the continued existence of systemic racial oppression. I ignorantly and naively presented what I thought to be a completed chapter in our nation’s history.
This approach is not so much problematic as it is, arguably, emblematic of the White co-opting of the civil rights movement. We, and I speak here for the White American majority, have watered MLK down to non-violent civil disobedience rather than radical insurgency against oppression. The same has been done with Black History Month.
I need to ensure that when I lead my classroom in honoring Black History Month that I don’t simply focus on the relative distance and comfort of the civil rights movement. I need to push my students, and myself, further.
In addition to the inspiring victories of the 1960s, I need to present my students with the “Negro Motorist Green Book” and discuss the realities that made such a book necessary.
I need to give my students a space to critically analyze Reagan, Bush, Clinton and the War on Drugs and its continued disproportionate impact on Black American communities.
I need to give my students the space to investigate the hope, promise and realities of America’s first Black president.
I need to give my students the space to to talk about Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Kalief Browder.
Teaching is about fighting for social justice. For the next generation of social justice warriors to be effective in the fight against oppression, they need to be armed with truth.
As an educator, I will push myself further this February by not simply engaging my students with Black History, but also with our own individual places within the larger narrative.