History Month Needs Constant Renewal to Remain Relevant
Baye Betty Winston
February 10, 2005
We're about a
third of the way through Black History Month, and no doubt
more than a few teachers and parents are feeling burned
out by the incessant repetition.
Maybe, some are
thinking, I'll scream if I have to tell that Rosa Parks
story one more time.
I'm not a teacher,
but I feel their pain. How does one tell or teach a story
that's been told so many times, and more often in the same
simplistic way - that Rosa Parks was just a tired old black
lady who one day decided, with no forethought, not to stand
up on a crowded bus so that a white person could sit down?
easily conclude that Parks acted on the spur of the moment,
and purely out of emotion. But nothing could be further
from the truth.
week, as I've done for years, I participated in the Alpha
Kappa Alpha Sorority's Eta Omega Chapter's annual black
history read-in for Jefferson County Public Schools students.
Looking at those
middle-school students assembled in the basement of the
Louisville Free Public Library's Western Branch, I wondered
what might resonate for them instead of put them to sleep.
I chose Sena
Jeter Naslund's novel, Four Spirits. The spirits are those
of the four black girls who died on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963,
when Ku Klux Klansmen bombed their church in Birmingham,
Ala. Naslund, a Birmingham native of the right age, has
the authority to imagine what went on in the minds of the
city's black and white citizens in those ugly times.
The passage I
read was about Naslund's character TJ, a black World War
II veteran who came home from the war to find that nothing
had changed in Birmingham; he was still treated as second
And so, there's
TJ in 1963 watching little black boys and girls, some as
young as 6, fighting back. "Why had the children flowed
into the jails, filling them up, when the adults were too
afraid to demonstrate?" he wondered. And whence cometh
those children's courage to face snarling German shepherds
and grown men mowing them down with blasts of water as if
they were enemies on some foreign battlefield?
at how the flat fire hose went plump, how water leapt powerfully
from the hose. Took two firemen to hold the brass nozzle
between them. In a flash of sunlit water, a little girl
in her Sunday best - pale blue - was drenched and smacked
to the ground."
I knew that my
young audience had hear d many times about Martin Luther
King Jr. But had anyone told them about the courageous boys
and girls of Birmingham? Did they know that kids their age
and younger went to jail, too?
I wanted those
students to understand, if they didn't already, that freedom
isn't free. That even children have roles to play in helping
to create the world they wish to grow up in. I wanted them
to know that sometimes it's the children who must liberate
grown-ups from fears and prejudices.
I can't claim
that I succeeded since I spent only a few moments with the
students. But I hope I planted a seed and that the teachers
and parents who accompanied the students would pick up my
thread and teach the story of Birmingham more often from
the perspectives of the unsung and the young.
to the view that teaching African-American history in February
has become an exercise in celebrating a few and ignoring
Now, to the rescue
of parents and teachers who are similarly concerned about
how poorly and simplistically black history is taught comes
a book, Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching:
A Resource Guide for K-12 Classrooms.
The editors -
Deborah Menkart, Alan D. Murray and Jenice L. View - collectively
have dozens of years of classroom experience, and together
with an impressive panel of advisers, including many civil
rights veterans, they've produced a guide that encourages
critical teaching as well as critical thinking. Their lesson
plans have been classroom-tested, and are organized by grade
level. What I really like about the guide is that it ends
by looking forward, including an essay by Grace Lee Boggs
that emphasizes the wonderful insight that "each generation
must discover its own mission." What happened yesterday
may not be what's needed today, but ultimately, there's
always a necessity to struggle.
Baye's columns appear Thursdays. Read them online at www.courier-journal.com.