By Karen Shapiro, teacher at HLA – Morris Park

What’s a token? A symbol. A gesture. Sometimes cartoonish, like a Star of David on an airport Christmas tree. Sometimes well-intentioned, yet insufficient to express the layers of meaning behind it – like African American History Month.

On the surface, dedicating a month to the study of African American heritage is the opposite of a token gesture. What an opportunity to correct the oversights of our textbooks, collaborate with our scholars’ families and bring challenging conversations to our scholars! And yet, what it often turns into is a one-off lesson about tired Rosa Parks; a bulletin board about the contributions of Black folk to White society; a smattering of jazz. That’s how it’s been in elementary schools I’ve seen in New York, California and Minnesota. This year I decided to search for ways that schools are bringing depth to the study of African American heritage. Here are a few ideas I found:

  1. Don’t start in February; don’t stop in 2008. I’m proud of our 4th grade team at HLA-Morris Park for talking about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow at the very start of the year. Stopping with the assassination of Martin Luther King or the election of President Obama makes it seem as though efforts for racial equity in our nation are over; but setting African American history within the ongoing realities of Black communities can open the door for a year’s worth of honest, consistent discussion of race and society. For younger children, this can look like comparing skin tones while discussing other things that are the same and different about us; it can also look like asking children to talk about times they’ve noticed fair and unfair treatment. Try using the books in this list (sorted by age!) to spark your discussions.
  2. Let families lead. This can be tricky in a school with a small African American population – we run the risk of making a few families feel like they must represent the entire African American experience. Still, if we’re striving for a connected, inclusive culture, leaving parents out of the planning is the worse choice. Why not invite parents, scholars and local community experts to share about a tradition that is meaningful to them, or about the ways in which being an African American has shaped their identity. The topics they choose may not be what we originally had in mind, but so much the better.
  3. Highlight intersections. Highlighting the similarities between my own heritage as a European Jew and the African American experience can feel like I’m co-opting another people’s journey. But as social justice educator Zaretta Hammond puts it, “Given our increasing diversity as a society, it’s hard not to have our histories intersect, and it’s important to lift that up for students to see.” Highlighting the role California’s Mexican Americans played in the Civil War, or the role Black activism played in the Asian American struggle for civil rights, can help our students feel more personally invested in learning about African American history – as long as African American voices shape the bulk of our narrative. The series Voices of a People’s History can be a good place to start, as can the elementary read-aloud books by The Grio.

Every day at Hiawatha, we honor all of our students by providing them with a stellar education. Finding time to add in another topic during an already-full month can seem impossible. But with planning and a dose of humility, we can allow African American History Month to deepen students’ growing understanding of the racialized society we live in – a worthy step on our path towards an equitable, non-tokenizing world.