How parents can teach kids that all history counts.
These were the times my school marked the observances of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month.
I was raised in Montgomery, Ala., hallowed civil rights ground. At home, I took great pride in learning about King's legacy and the many contributions of Blacks to this country.
My parents' and grandparents' recollections about the second-class citizenry to which they belonged during segregation, and the jubilation brought about by civil rights gains, informed and inspired me as a child just as they inspire me today.
But in school, I resented the notion that because I was black, MLK Day and Black History Month were somehow "mine," that they weren't as important or relevant to my white classmates.
So rather than feeling excited to learn the history and facts that usually were glaring omissions the rest of the school year, I felt instead the burden of being the "black ambassador."
For me, that burden meant extra responsibility for special MLK or black history class reports, presentations and assemblies. It meant awkward glances from classmates when discussions of racial injustice arose. It meant being charged with helping my peers understand all they'd never known but wanted to know about black people.
Even today, when I think about the elementary school teacher who singled me out — one of the two or three black students in the class — to talk to classmates about what King Day meant to me, I feel a twinge in my stomach. I don't ever recall being singled out to share my thoughts about Presidents' Day or what Washington or Lincoln meant to me. But when it came to discussing King, I was, of course, the resident expert.
And this kind of tokenism isn't reserved for black students. We turn to the Asian student to tell us about Chinese New Year or the Latino student to tell us about Cinco de Mayo — even in cases where the student isn't of Chinese or Mexican heritage.
Now that I have a child of my own, I've wondered about the "black ambassador" burden on his shoulders. I'd hoped that now, more than two decades since my own school experience, a greater sense of shared history might have lightened the load.
That hope already is diminishing. My son is only 8 years old, but the notion that, because he is black, MLK Day is "his day" already has taken root. And so has the notion that black history is meant to raise the consciousness of black people alone.
A recent conversation tells the story. When I asked him why we celebrate the King holiday, he rattled off an answer about "black people needing to know our history." A question about Black History Month netted a similar response: "It's when black kids learn about things famous black people invented and things they did a long time ago."
Even though I've tried to teach him that King's legacy and our history as black people are important to America, and thus, to all who reside in its borders, these topics remain segregated in the black history box. I can only hope that for him, that box doesn't become the burden it was so many times for me.
Like King's dream, the events and people celebrated during February's Black History Month belong to all of us — they are lessons we all can learn from and take pride in.
For all children to appreciate this shared history, parents and caregivers must regularly reinforce those lessons at home.
No matter your color or background, here are suggestions to help you and your family embrace the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month — beyond any single day or single month.
Make history broader, deeper
- Aim for year-round impact. Don't neglect black history — or Asian history, or Latino history, or the history of people with disabilities, or so many other histories — from March through January. A month is good; a year is better.
- Be holistic. Work with your child and your child's teacher to make sure history is being taught as the layered and nuanced topic it is, including as many voices and perspectives as possible in any given lesson.
- Educate yourself. What knowledge do you lack about black history — or the history of Native Americans, the history of Islam, or histories of other races, religions, ethnicities and nationalities? Learn with your child, reading and studying new things together.
- Expose children to diverse books that feature people of other races, religions, nationalities and backgrounds — again, not just in February, but all through the year.
- Attend multicultural events.
- Discuss with children the ways people are alike and different.
- Question negative stereotypes in the media, and help your children identify stereotypes.
- Examine your own attitudes about those who are different from you. Lead by example, and make tolerance a priority in your life.
- A hallmark of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as advocated by The King Center, is for citizens to serve their communities on the holiday. The same spirit can guide you during Black History Month. Spend time volunteering at a local shelter or fixing up a playground. Visit The King Center website for more ideas.
- Find out what your child's classroom or school has planned for the month. Is there something you can add? Offer to help in whatever way you can, with resources or materials, with ideas, or with time and energy.
- Opportunities for service exist year-round. Plan regular family service projects or civic activities not just in February, but every month of the year.
If we are ever to truly realize King's dream, we must all — regardless of race, religion, creed, ability or background — make the dream our own. Certainly, it is vast enough and important enough for us all to share.