I’m not going to go into the politics behind Black History Month. Rather, I’d like to talk about how Black History Month influenced my school.
There were two narratives for the month of February, one that was uplifting and one that was depressing.
Our school incorporated a series of fantastic, truly unique events for Black History Month:
(1) C.R. Gibbs, a local DC lecturer and specialist on African-American history, gave a slide presentation on the role of DC African-Americans in the Civil War. If anything, I got a much more thoughtful understanding of DC’s place in US history, particularly as it relates to race relations. He focused on the 1st Regiment of DC Colored Volunteers, which was formed soon after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Here are some other nuggets of information that I learned:
- The only extant slave plantation building in DC is 1/2 a block from the Eastern Market metro station.
- The phrase, “City of Magnificent Intentions” (which became the title of the DC history textbook), was coined by Charles Dickens in his American Notes.
- Solomon Northrop, in his autobiographical narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, exposed one of the cruel ironies of DC in one observation: “A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!”
It was uplifting to see the way that DC blacks played a valuable role during the Civil War.
(2) The Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz presented its “Jazz Across America” concert to our school. T.S. Monk, Thelonius Monk’s son, gave the opening remarks before an all-star cast (i.e. Grammy-winning and -nominated artists) composed of Chris Thomas King, Bobby Watson, MC Supernatural and Lisa Henry took the stage. The artists attempted to connect the dots from past to present by performing a historical progression of music.
- Guitarist Chris Thomas King began with some Delta blues, playing “Come on in My Kitchen.”
- Alto saxophonist Bobby Watson then transitioned into more modern jazz, playing Paul Williams’ “Hucklebuck.”
- MC Supernatural closed the show, showing how hip hop’s rhymes and syncopation grew out of these other genres of music. The best part about the show was when MC Supernatural invited students to bring up items to the stage. He freestyled about these items, which ranged from hand lotion to $20 bills to pencils and books (fun fact: MC Supernatural holds the Guinness World Record for longest freestyle at over 9 straight hours).
It was uplifting to see the way that many students explicitly made the connection between modern-day and past music.
(3) Ronald Machen, DC’s US Attorney, came to speak about his path to success. A Harvard Law School graduate and a former Assistant US Attorney, Mr. Machen clearly symbolized success, particularly to the predominantly black student body. His talk encompassed a range of topics:
- He made the connection between education and crime, arguing that the best way to reduce crime is to educate a community’s students.
- He also described some grim trends in DC: violent crimes, overall, are down, but juvenile crime is up significantly. In fact, over 30% of the 135 murders in 2010 involved juveniles, either as victims or attackers.
- He explained his theory for why juveniles committed crimes and argued that most crime was borne out of (a) overreaction (b) insecurity or (c) ignorance. He emphasized the need to “let things go” and not allow a petty argument spiral out of control.
It was uplifting to see the way the students were mesmerized by his talk, even though he, in some salient ways, symbolizes what many students at my school despise–the “Feds” or the “popos.”
(4) My school had a Black History Month Assembly, which included a range of performances and presentations. Most notably, a student reenacted Frederick Douglass’ speech, “Men of Color, To Arms!” It was really inspiring.
It was uplifting to see a school community focused on commemorating a crucial part of US history.
Thankfully, I don’t have much to say here. However, the little I do have to say is extremely sad. Throughout the month’s events, there was a sizable chunk of students who showed a complete disregard for, or appreciation of, black history:
- The C.R. Gibbs lecture began just before the final school bell rang. As soon as it did, 75% of the present students shot up out of their seats and left, right as Mr. Gibbs was mid-sentence describing the role of black soldiers during the Civil War. Fewer than a half dozen students remained for the rest of the lecture.
- During the “Jazz Across America” concert, a mass of students also peaced out of the auditorium after the second lunch bell rang, right in the middle of Grammy Award-winner Chris Thomas King was playing a blues song.
- A number of students refused to stand up or take off their hats as the school sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem. Instead, they chose to holler at and make fun of others who were singing.
I was depressed to see that, despite the amazing, unforgettable opportunities to learn–no less, on topics focused on one’s own heritage–the majority of students either chose not, or knew no better than, to reflect.