It Takes More Than One Month to Strengthen Black Students’ Pride and Self-esteem

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On Education

Think of it as a simple arithmetic problem: Student W receives 12 months of cultural affirmation, racial acknowledgement and privileged recognition. Student B receives 12 months of cultural disregard, racial denigration & ethnic repudiation and then one month of an often badly planned and sometimes patronizing “Black History Month Celebration” (BHMC). Question: Which student will emerge from their respective experiences with a stronger sense of self-pride and self-esteem?

Black students can’t “love themselves” in school unless they see themselves loved by the school’s curriculum. The curriculum being every activity related to the school. But let’s not get it twisted, this does not mean that Black students should not study the work products of people like Shakespeare and Chekhov or avoid the theorems of Newton and Einstein. To not embrace “world knowledge” would constitute an act of educational malpractice. However, Black students should see themselves as potential positive participants in the development of world history and progress.

The truth is that too many schools in our nation fail at the first step in Black student self-esteem/pride-building by not effectively providing Black students with a strong academic foundation for learning anything. Like how to: read, write, think analytically, experience the arts, study history and foreign languages, and engage the principles of STEM.* Actually, I would trade one annually bad BHMC for a full school year of Black students becoming really knowledgeable and skilled in the before-mentioned academic and subject content areas.

If a school is not providing a Black child with a high-quality knowledge and skills instructional program, then any claim of wanting (even for one month) to build Black pride/self-esteem is fraudulent.

The first step then in Black pride & self-esteem-building, is effective learning. If an enslaved Frederick Douglass can acquire ELA skills (reading, writing and speaking) and a Black middle school student can be functionally ELA-illiterate in 2019, then what are we celebrating? The “Blackest” act any school can perform is to expose Black students to a rigorous standards-based curriculum and instructional program. If a high school student is unable to critically read Octavia Butler or Toni Morrison, is totally unfamiliar with the biological principles undergirding the research of Charles Drew or George Washington Carver, then all we are really doing are historical “shout-outs!” Black students must be able to link their mastery and confidence in learning with the study of accomplished Black role models or it becomes an exercise in disconnected and abstract “star-gazing.” Students should leave a BHMC with the idea that based on their own learning in school, they too could become a: astrophysicist, artist, archeologist, anthropologist…

Secondly, don’t “ghettoize” a BHMC. A people story that begins in slavery and ends with civil rights is not a pride and confidence-building exercise. Further, any BHMC that narrowly focuses on “brokenness” and “victimhood” undermines the very essence of any self-esteem/pride-building learning objective.

Schools must create a year-round counter-narrative to the “Blackface,” MAGA and poisonous “othering” narratives that have historically and present-persistently infect the consciousness of our nation. This affirmation narrative must have as its teaching objective: to affirm the Black student’s culture, history, language, family, neighborhood, struggles and the collective aspirations of their people. Most importantly, it must affirm that Black child’s humanity! Which is why the curricular focus can’t be: “You’ll wuz slaves, and now you’ll free!” US slavery is only a small “interruptive-disruptive” phase in the very long pre-slavery history of African-Americans. And as one who has written curriculum such as a comprehensibly honest African-American history curriculum couldn’t possibly be covered in one month and surely would be negated if Black students were exposed to a curriculum of Black degradation for the remaining school months.

The next step is school-year-round truth-telling in all (especially history) classes. A major cause of US students’ miseducation is our failure to teach the truth, particularly when those truths make some entitled US citizens uncomfortable. This is critically important at a time when lies, distortions and misinformation have become the daily currency of US executive policy. Truth-telling and the teaching of critical thinking skills must become a core learning objective in all subject areas. Failing to do so hurts all students, not just Black students.

Finally, Black parents would be waiting in vain for schools (public, public-charter or private) to properly recognize and honor the vast cultural heritage of Black children. Black parents, religious and community institutions should take this effort on themselves, not in anger, but rather in recognition that only they can fully understand the daily assaults on the personhoods of Black children in America. They understand these small and large acts of cultural aggression because they suffer the same daily indignities themselves. Black parents should get busy, teaching, exposing and educationally empowering their children, 12 Black History Months a year!

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.” [http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/]