What I Learned from Black History Month This Year: Part III

Emerson held its Black History Month assembly on an early release day. I spent the early morning printing up the programs LaTrina designed, and then the performers and I spent the rest of the morning rehearsing.

Things, of course, took longer than expected. Mics had to be set, audio uploaded, and not everyone got the chance to run-through their program onstage. But after the break, the students started filing into the auditorium and ready or not, it was time to begin.

We planned to start the assembly with everyone singing together. I wasn't sure how this would go off. We played the song as everyone took their seats, and once we were set to start, one of the MCs invited everyone to sing The Black National Anthem. There was a pause, and as the lyrics scrolled onto the screen, to my surprise, a chorus of voices rang out behind me. Students were really singing, and they sounded so good I was tempted to keep the song going, but there was a full program so we continued on.

LaTrina's son, Joshua, provided context for the assembly with his opening remarks followed by a powerful rendition of Common and John Legend's "Glory." The Tim Wise video clip from "White Like Me" elicited some uncomfortable laughter from the audience and I hoped this discomfort would help students begin to explore the ways race and privilege play parts in all of our lives.

The program unfolded, not without its glitches, but our students learned that Black History wasn't just about Martin Luther King Jr., or slavery. We explored The Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou's poetry, students' original poetry, music from "Hairspray," and introduced the Black Panther Party.

At the end, when one student still didn't understand why we needed a Black History Month assembly, one of the participants said if we didn't, all of the months would be for white history. I continued to hear about conversations unfolding in classrooms after the assembly. Students and I discussed take-aways from the program, about their need to further explore privilege, and learn more about The Black Panther Party. Other students said they were beginning to understand what it meant to be an ally and in the end, that was what I learned too. Being an ally isn't a given. It's something earned.


What I Learned from Black History Month This Year: Part II

There were a few moments when I was organizing this assembly that I thought to myself, "Why am I doing this? How did I end up being in charge of the Black History Month assembly?" I said it to colleagues and friends in the overwhelm of organizing students and culling resources.

One of the obvious answers was that I have a hard time saying no particularly when it's something important or when it's a "teachable moment."

But being in charge of this assembly also forced me to ask myself: "What is my relationship to Black History? What do I have to contribute and learn?"

I knew from long ago nights of watching Eyes on the Prize with my mom that Black History was part of American history, a history of oppression, resistance, and iconic moments. But I also wanted to be careful not to appropriate this powerful part of history. I could identify with Black History as an ally, but as a multiracial woman who could pass, I could not claim it as my own. I had to acknowledge my privilege as someone who had never felt obligated to do something for Black History Month.

My thinking started to shift. Instead of feeling resentful for being in charge of this assembly, I started to feel honored. I was organizing something incredibly important. My students and their families were trusting me to do something with this opportunity and as an ally, I had an obligation to rise to the occasion.

It was with this shift in thinking that I thought about what Emerson's diverse student population could contribute and learn. I wanted all students to feel like they could speak up, so I showed a few powerful spoken-word pieces and hoped students would feel inspired. Then, at the Speech and Debate tournament, I spoke with Latrina Reed, the parent who started it all, and we brainstormed how the event might come together.

Then, it was SuperBowl weekend. Beyonce released "Formation" and her halftime performance and the media's response reminded me of how much people didn't know about Black History and our shared history.

LaTrina and I met again, and we started to see an assembly that could teach and push our students: not just the performers, but the audience as well. We agreed to show pieces on white privilege and The Black Panther Party. The cheer coach helped her students learn choreography for "Formation" and the drama teacher helped with microphones, staging, and lights. And when I spoke with my students about the assembly, they signed up. Students of all backgrounds agreed to a variety of levels of participation. Students signed up to emcee, sing, recite poetry, facts, biographies, and perform skits.

Before I knew it, we had prepared an assembly.

In my next post: Emerson's Black History Month Assembly and the conversations that followed.


What I Learned from Black History Month This Year: Part I

This past February was a tough one.
There was the loss of a couple of former colleagues at Emerson.
There was the exhaustion of these winter teaching months when spring seems so far away.
There was the prospect of a new job for David that made me question my own career choices.
There was a disturbing, hateful, and divisive presidential primary.
There was a heat wave hinting that our planet is doomed.
There was Black History Month.

In the past at Emerson, Black History Month was marked in a variety of ways. Mrs. Cowart would sing over the PA. Maybe Ms. Randall or Ms. Dawson would make announcements from a moment in Black history. I observed the month from the periphery, conducting my traditional President's Day lesson about our founding fathers and their roles as slave-owners.

But this year, a parent spoke to me early on about doing something to mark the month. Other teachers agreed to curricular lessons about Black scientists, artists, and mathematicians. At our charter board meeting at the start of the month, I proposed a Black History Month assembly, got it on the calendar and figured this committee of teachers could help make it happen. But as the month unfolded, rather than dedicating specific lessons to Black History Month, I was focused on To Kill A Mockingbird and helping our Speech and Debate team prepare for the up-coming tournament we were hosting. Teachers got busy, grades were due, parent conference night loomed, and Black History Month was pushed to the back of all our minds.

As the end of the month neared, I tried to envision how this assembly might look. Who would participate? What would the audience gain? After all, Emerson is a unique school. It is diverse like few schools are. There are Black kids, Latino kids, white kids, Persian kids, Asian kids and mixes of all of these backgrounds. There are kids whose families have been in Los Angeles for generations, and kids who arrived just this past week. So, what could we present at this Black History Month assembly that would educate and inspire and hopefully spur conversations? I wasn't sure, but what came together surprised me.

You can read all about it in my next post.