Talking to Your Kid About Black History Month: First Grade Edition

February 18, 2021

I have a thing about Black History Month. I really get into it but I wish it was on a longer, warmer month. June seems logical. My students are reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X right now. I try to make sure black authors are in front of their eyes each winter. There’s just a binge on learning cool stuff. Did you know that the ice cream scoop was invented by an African-American named Alfred L. Cralle? No scooped ice cream for racists!

My love of the black history binge might have had something to do with a white supremacist moment I had in 1979. In my tenth grade journalism class had an assignment to write an editorial. The title of this editorial, written by a white kid in a historic Klan town was… ready…?, “If They Have Black History Month, Why Don’t We Have White History Month?” That’s how my 15-year-old brain was processing the state of race in ’79. My teacher’s response was, “That’s a very strong opinion, Randy.” It should have been, “Every month is ‘White History Month,’ you racist twerp.” So maybe my affinity for Black History Month is a penance for that sin, or the many others.

This year’s Black History Month is a bit more meaningful, in wake of the massive BLM protests last year. But also because my daughter, Cozette, is ready to dive in herself. I was where she is, first grade, in February, 1970, which was the very first Black History Month. The closest I got to knowing that I should think about race at 6 was staring at a “Black is Beautiful” poster in a shop on an a family trip to Niagara Falls. The women in the poster was topless, with a massive afro and a clenched fist. I was transfixed. Cozy is more familiar with images of Breonna Taylor that are painted on murals in our city.

Unlike me, Cozy is growing up in a house with plenty of black heroes. MLK is on the fridge and Motown Magic is her go-to cartoon. (I did have Fat Albert but I don’t know if that undid any racial stereotypes in the 1970s. I’m looking at you, Mushmouth.) But even better, Cozy’s teacher has her first grade class on a healthy diet of Black History Month stories. She’s started her winter school days with lessons about MLK, Malcolm X, Ruby Bridges, Harriet Tubman, and Louis Armstrong, among others. 

Her school is sponsoring a Black History Month art show, in which students complete portraits of African Americans that have inspired them. Cozy’s already done portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, so she chose Louis Armstrong, someone who gets a lot of play in this house. (Fun fact: Cozy’s grandma met Mr. Armstrong after winning a saxophone contest when she was 16. In awe, her main memory was that he swore like a sailor.) At 6, Cozy pretty much captured the greatness of Satchmo. She’s a true jazzbo. As much as she loves Louis’ “wrinkly” voice, she prefers Miles.

Having a teacher who explains why Black History Month matters has been a wonderful thing. How do you explain to a six-year-old the horrors of slavery? “People owned other people just because of the color of their skin.” When I asked her what slavery meant, she grew silent and talked about her black friends and how it made her sad. Kids her age are quite aware of race, especially if they are not white. Cozy’s Mexican genes are talking to her European genes, while across the street from her African-American friends and in a house where her parents are always talking about racism. It must be a lot for her brain.

To help her out, I bought her a copy of The ABC’s of Black History by Rio Cortez, brilliantly illustrated by Lauren Semmer. D is for diaspora. She fell in love with the vibrancy of it, especially the entry on George Washington Carver (she loves peanut butter) and the “M is March” section, featuring BLM posters, like the ones she made last summer. In addition, PBS has made a point of centering black history in its children’s programming. She’s been glued to a cartoon called Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum, learning about Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ella Fitzgerald. (The 1956 Ella and Louis album is now on repeat play, which is a very good thing, and Cozy has taken up scatting.)

At 6, I think Black History Month is about celebrating how African-Americans have made life so much better in America. She has an understanding of the pain caused by racism, but it’s not time yet to wade into the torture, trauma, suffering, exclusion, and dehumanization the begs us to make black lives matter every month. I can see her processing it through her peers. Generation Z kids not only have more diverse friend-groups than their elders, they themselves are more diverse. Where “mulatto” was a pejorative a hundred years ago, bi-racial+ is just the norm now. But these kids still live in world that pushes a white supremacist worldview. Despite Motown Magic, the majority of the cartoon, book, and TV characters she sees are white. And male. So while it’s certainly too soon to sit her in front of the TV for a screening of 12 Years a Slave or 13th, she can definitely start picking up on the whole unfairness of racism story and that people who look like her father benefit from it and that people who look like her friend Jaden are challenged because of it.

It’s a tricky path. What I knew about race at 6 came from horribly racist norms. People who lived in the city (i.e. black people) were savages compared to those of us (white people) outside of the city. The urban jungle was framed in contrast to “civilized” society. Cozy lives in the city with plenty of black friends, so that hateful dichotomy is gone, but the complexity of racism remains. It seems like the “primary school” agenda is simply that black culture is amazing and that our black friends have faced unfair struggles that we are committed to fixing.

I’m supposed to be an expert on this topic, but when it’s your kid, it’s a real challenge. You really want them to value everyone as fully humanized but also recognize the forces that have stood in the way of that simple truth. It’s harder than I thought. But she’s smart. I think she’s getting it, complete with the soundtrack. Thank you to all the great teachers who make February matter.

Why I love Black History Month. An Apology.

Feb. 19, 2015 Sometimes I got complaints from students at PSU who were unhappy with their grades or just wanted to see if they can take me down a few notches. One of my favorites was an annonymous complaint that I made fun of Black History Month, saying there was a sale on cottonballs at Walmart.

I know, it makes absolutely no sense. First of all, I have a better sense of humor than that. And second, I LOVE Black History Month! My joke about it is racists put it in the shortest and coldest month of the year. It should be in May. Give us 31 days, Honky!

But I got called into the “Office of Equity & Complaince” (Kafka reference here) and was interogated. It all blew over but I had to explain to the well-meaning bureaucrat in charge that my whole life has been dedicated to undoing biases like racism and sexism. It’s a feature of each of my classes. I went undercover in some of the most violent white supremacist groups in the world to learn how to do this.

Anyway, my trust in the institutions like that to be partners in that journey, instead of just “management,” died on that day. But it hasn’t taken anything away from my love of Black History Month. My favorite part of it is learning about cool things invented by African-Americans. It’s the nerd in me. One time there was this chubby skinhead chowing down on a bag of Lays Potato Chips. I told him he was a shitty Nazi because potato chips were invented by George Crum, a black guy. He looked sad.

But I wanted to tell another story today. It’s probably the best story the explains why a chose a path dedicated to anti-racism. When I was a freshman at Oxford College (a part of Emory University), winter quarter had a required thing called Oxford Studies. Everybody on campus reads the same book, goes to presentations and lectures and has a general conversation about it. Like an Ivy League Oprah’s Book Club.

DICKEYMe reading in front of Dickey Dorm.

The winter of 1982 it was Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s important 1964 book about the state of civil rights in America. Since it was a required book assigned to a bunch of young college kids (most from the South) who would rather be drinking hunch punch than reading another “important” book, there was a great celebration when the Oxford Studies term ended.

Someone in my dorm marked the occasion by ripping the book in half and throwing it into the urinal in the bathroom on our hall. I walked into the bathroom and saw our black janitor, who we all loved, standing in front of that urinal in tears. Here is a guy who cleaned the toilets of privileged white kids who go off to college at 18, not off to work. And here were the words of the man who wanted every child to have that chance in a dirty urinal. It was heartbreaking on a massive scale.

I tell this story because the 18-year-old kid who ripped up that book and dumped it in the john was me. It was just an impulse. Not meant to be racist. But I saw the impact that thoughtless act had on another human being and suddenly the whole thing became clear to me. I was a racist, the product of a racist culture that had the privilege of not thinking about the reality of race in America.

I became anti-racist activist in that moment, to make amends to that janitor who I never had the guts to apologize to. It’s 33 years later and I still cannot think about that moment without tears streaming down my face.

When I was a 16-year-old kid living in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I was given an assignment in my journalism class to write an editorial. Here’s what I wrote. “If there’s a Black History Month, why can’t their be a White History Month?” If the teacher would have just said, “Randy, every month is ‘White History Month’,” I might have started on this path earlier and spared the knife I slowly pushed into our janitor’s back.

My daughter will know about race. She will know about the white privilege and the obstacles her Latino relatives and other people of color still face. Most of all she will know that these issues are very real and matter to people in the deepest ways.

Oxford83DOur janitor, on the left.

And to the janitor of Dickey Dorm at Oxford Collge in 1982, I want to say I am sorry. I will continue to make it up to you. I promise.

This book by Dr. King is available at Powell’s by clicking below. I plan on buying a new copy.