Monday, March 1, 2010

Black History Month

Black History Month is a big deal at Shamrock Gardens.

Each February, hand-drawn and hand-colored portraits of African Americans appear in the hallways, figures such as Benjamin Banneker, Frederic Douglass, Rosa Parks, Maulana Karenga and Oprah Winfrey. Students apply themselves to the events that mark the month: writing reports, memorizing lines from plays, rehearsing stirring songs.

This year, Black History Month made itself known when Parker's reading homework began to alternate between passages about the moon (this month's science theme), the Underground Railroad, and historical figures that included Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself to freedom, and Matthew Henson, a key member of the first group of explorers to reach the North Pole.

This is not my third grade history. In February of 1971, when I was in third grade, Negro History Week (begun in 1926) had not yet officially become Black History Month. We lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and as best I can recall, the grade school I attended was lily-white. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been dead less than three years. Although my memories of those years are blurred and vague, I feel quite sure that I did not know who he was.

The only fragments of black history I can pull out of those early recollections involve a story about Harriet Tubman and a drawing of George Washington Carver. Rendered in the pastel-tinged realism of 1950s-style textbooks, Carver wore a white lab coat and was surrounded by drawings of peanuts. The main thing I remember from the Harriet Tubman story is that because of a head injury, she had to worry that she would suddenly fall asleep at the wrong moment. That seemed strange and scary. I don't know what I thought about slavery.

Parker, in contrast, has been appalled by slavery, and by segregation, for years. The year he was in kindergarten, while we were playing a trivia game, my father asked him which President freed the slaves. "Abraham Lincoln," he promptly replied. In second grade, he portrayed Harlem Renaissance writer James Lesene Wells in his class's living black history museum.

In third grade, one of his most heartfelt essays dealt with the wrongs of segregation.

How much of this knowledge – and outrage – comes from changes in curriculum, how much from living in the South, how much from going to a school where more than 90 percent of the students are kids of color, I don't know.

When I asked teachers about Black History Month, they said that their students especially liked learning about people they could identify with, and whose stories they didn't already know (I sensed a degree of fatigue with the standard characters and stories the day that Parker came home performing a sidesplittingly comic rendition of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech – courtesy, he said, of one of his black classmates).

When I asked Parker what his classmates thought of Black History Month, he didn't have much to say. Some of his them were interested in black history, he said, some weren't. Then, however, he decided to elaborate. No one in the class liked white people, he announced. Asian, Hispanic, African-American, they all agreed on that one.

I was skeptical. What about his teachers, I asked. They didn't count, he said (Neither did I, he generously added). What about pale Lianna, his classmate and good friend? Lianna was a quarter Japanese, he reminded me, thanks to her grandmother on her father's side.

What about blond, blue-eyed Susan, in the class across the hall? Susan, he stated, was "mixed" as well. Mixed-race is a common category at Shamrock – last year the school was 6 percent white, and about 7 percent mixed, as well as 57 percent African American, 23 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian. But I know Susan's family, and she is not among them. When I asked Parker what she was "mixed" with, he couldn't say.

Still, his claim took me back to an afternoon about a year ago, when two friends from Shamrock came over to play At some point, one of them got mad and called Parker "an ugly white boy." I found this amusing, and pointed out that my half-Chinese son was not white. Then, to underscore the point, I dramatically announced that the only white person present was me.

The girls' reaction was immediate and identical. "You don't look white," they chorused. For someone who is pretty much as WASPy as they come – hazel eyes, freckled skin, straight, stringy, light brown hair – this came as something of a shock. But when I pressed them, they refused to budge. I looked Hispanic, they said. Definitely not white.

In such cases, it seems, "white" is an abstract idea, unrelated to anyone they might actually know – except when it becomes useful as an insult. And I can see why Black History Month might lend itself to seeing whiteness in this way.

Shamrock's teachers, most of whom are white themselves, do not go around packing students' heads with anti-white propaganda. But in the stories that fill Black History Month, overcoming the obstacles of a society built by white people for white people is a major theme.

For most of this nation's history, successful African Americans have achieved in spite of slavery, prejudice and segregation – the obstacles that bring drama to their stories and add stature to their accomplishments. Escaping slaves were hunted down; scientists and explorers had to fight for recognition; civil rights activists were beaten, spat upon and sometimes murdered. What's to like?

And despite the advances the civil rights movement has brought us, Shamrock itself remains largely segregated, separate from the well-off, predominantly white neighborhoods that surround it, most of whose children leave the area each morning to go to other schools. As best as I can tell, most of the kids at Shamrock have limited contact with whites, beyond those mysterious (and much-beloved) adults who are their teachers.

I don't know if this kind of segregation affects the way that Shamrock's students see white people. But I do know that it affects me. Our neighborhood is now full of young white couples, and of light-skinned children perched in strollers, riding bikes, dashing wildly down the streets. As I ride my own bike, or labor in my garden, I see them through the lens of segregation. All I know – or really care to know – about them is that they will never pass the threshold of our school.

So perhaps the girls were not so wrong after all. Perhaps pale skin and hazel eyes and light brown hair mean less than I have always assumed they did.

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