Every year, as Black History Month approaches, I think about how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go. I think about the sacrifices and experiences of my ancestors, and I am thankful for those shoulders on which I stand. I know I am only where I am because of the work of those who survived the middle passage, the cruelty of slavery, and Jim Crow. Those whose work I continue as I pick up the baton where they laid it down; some of them reluctantly as their lives taken from us in their primes. I am blessed to be able to use their experiences as the light to the path ahead.
So much of what I know about my heritage, I did not learn in school. I learned through my elders who kept alive a tradition that predates writing. It is a tradition that has saved lives and also preserved essential accounts of events inextricably tied to who we, black people, are. That culture of oral history is how the heritage of black people sold into slavery has survived. This practice was crucial in a time where reading and writing for blacks was punishable by death and still is as stories our ancestors preserved make their way down to future generations.
The problem is the oral history of black people in America does not agree with the history our children learn about in books. Our children learn accounts of events that conflict with who they are. Our children grow up writing book reports revering the men who enslaved their ancestors (and would not have even considered them human enough to be in a school setting). Black History Month is micro-messaged in a way that tells them the shortest month of the year can contain all of black history; come March 1st its back to business as usual.
I came across a post on Instagram last week that made me think twice about the history we share with our kids, especially students of color. A young black boy, appropriately named King, took an issue with an account of Christopher Columbus he learned in school that was the opposite of what he had learned through the oral history his mother shared with him. He expressed himself in his journal entry to which his teacher expressed her disappointment. The post went viral and is almost comical until you stop and think about what it meant. A teacher was disappointed in her student knowing the most accurate account of the history and the effect it had on his ancestors. She was disappointed with his honesty when she should have praised King for his work.
A keen sense of self is key to educational excellence. Black kids shouldn’t only learn about their heritage in February; black history is happening daily. In fact, black kids are the living dreams of our ancestors. When they can think critically enough to disagree with what is presented to them compared to what they know to be true, we should applaud them. Moreso, people of color, should do everything we can to ensure our history does lives through the tradition of both written and oral history.