Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from women in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. Click here to join the Reckon Women Facebook group.
By Janelle Graham
Last month, around the third week of February, I sat down with my 9th grade students to discuss Black History Month.
“What is Black?”
That’s the first question we tackled in our discussion. We talked about slavery and stereotypes, racism and discrimination. Some students said they felt America had learned from her past. Others weren’t so sure.
When I brought up the Tuskegee Airmen, the Tuskegee Experiment, Rosewood, Florida, Willie Lynch, and Black Wall Street, blank stares filled the room and Zoom.
My students knew of Rosa Parks, but they’d never heard of Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old girl who refused to give up her seat nine months before Parks did. But Colvin had darker skin and didn’t have “good hair,” so she wasn’t considered a suitable face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. If I had heard of Claudette Colvin as an adolescent it would have put some fire under me and made me realize that I could combat inequality regardless of my age, circumstances, or appearance.
My students know of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of course. But few are aware that shortly before his assassination Dr. King said, “I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.”
Black History Month is often used as a time to shed light on the civil rights movement, but we don’t hear about the free breakfast for children, challenge of police brutality, and survival techniques that the Black Panther movement provided.
When discussing Black history, we must have the tough conversations. Having discussions surrounding the Greenwood Massacre of 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is vital in understanding racial violence in America. White mobs, with the help of the city, set ablaze and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of an affluent, educated, and professional Black neighborhood while citizens were present.
Growing up, I remember buying into the myth that if my body is seen I will be loved, valued, or respected. I see too many young women today falling prey to the same lie. I wonder if they’d make different choices if they knew the story of Saartjie (or Sarah) Baartman. She was paraded around Europe and put on display for crowds to look at her buttocks. Her body was treated as an exhibit, as a freak show. When Baartman died, the naturalist Georges Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body, preserved her skeleton, and pickled her brain and genitals, placing them in jars displayed in Paris’ Museum of Men until 1974.
February should not be the only month we explore Black history. Black history is American history, a lesson that obviously needs to be taught to the officials at the Utah school who wanted to make Black History Month curriculum optional. When the story of Thomas Jefferson is taught, Sally Hemings, a slave owned by Jefferson who bore him 6 children, also needs to be in the discussion. Recognition of Dr. J. Marion Sims as the “father of modern gynecology” should be told along with the narrative of Anarcha, an enslaved woman who Sims forced to undergo over 30 painful experimental surgical procedures without her consent or the use of anesthesia, along with the other Black women subjected to his experiments.
When the complete stories are told, and not just half-truths, many will have to admit the magnitude of the horrors inflicted on our Black community, and its hand in propelling American history.
In my classroom, the discussion of Black history will continue this month and throughout the remaining school year. I will introduce my students to Black authors, creatives and thinkers who share their experiences and challenge the thinking of white supremacy. We will study how American advancement has often been the result of Black oppression. But above all, we will celebrate expression. I will give my students a platform to strengthen their voice by knowing where they come from. I will provide a place for them to ask questions and become the answers.