Monday, January 31, 2011

Connections for Black History Month

I am a BUSY school librarian in the inner city; I am at a new school this year. I love it, and yet many things (such as, unfortunately, getting exercise and thoroughly reading the paper) have fallen by the wayside. During a series of snow days I found myself able to read the local paper cover to cover. I had not had time this school year to read the opinion pages, but I read “When it comes to history, blacks can learn from Jews’ response” by Leonard Pitts Jr. of The Miami Herald. Pitts discusses how the strenuous work of Jewish and historical organizations has been successful, and how important it is to know history; he states that the Holocaust went from a little known subject in the 1970s to being a part of curriculums around the world. In knowing that knowledge can build bridges and possibly prevent catastrophic events, he believes that the African American community should be as vigilant in knowing, relating to, and sharing its challenging history with others.

I enthusiastically agree. Having been an inner city teacher for 14 years, one of the biggest surprises for me was finding that my African American students don’t feel a connection to the civil rights movement and other important periods and issues associated with this history. I was really excited the first January that I served a school with a population that was mostly African American. We had studied different aspects of the Holocaust together after some students read such books as The Devil’s Arithmetic and Number the Stars; we examined nonfiction sources and the students’ ability to empathize grew; I thought that our studies of the civil rights movement would be even more profound for them, sure that at least some of them had relatives who participated. My parents were involved in the civil rights movement, and I was eager to share my family’s part and to hear about their family’s involvement during February. I was completely thrown when my students told me that they didn’t know of anyone who participated in the civil rights movement, not even local sit-ins, etc. I am rarely stunned to silence, but after finding my voice again, I asked all of them to go home and ask about their family.

The next day, I was sure I’d hear of students’ new found knowledge, but not one found any connection. I found that one of the casualties of the disjointed families of generational poverty was a loss of family history and memory; the shorter time spans between generations made the 1960s a very distant time. I diligently opened dialogues with students in order to help them connect to the history. We worked together to understand the courage one would had to have participate in the marches, demonstrations, boycotts, etc. The students initially thought that only African Americans were involved with and participated in the civil rights movement, but we worked together to learn about the participation of many different groups, including many Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors. I continue this arduous task each year, and this the movie Boycott will become one of my new resources this year; it truly conveys the uncertainty, worry, and how stressed those who organized and participated in the Montgomery bus boycott must have felt.

The Jewish community has been arduous in keeping our society connected to the Holocaust, and I hope someday to find that this is true of the history of African Americans, too. I hope that Pitts’ words urging those involved to “bear witness” stir action to change this disconnect.

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