Black History Month

I took a risk this February. My school celebrates Black History Month in a number of ways, but I always feel like I need to do more. Here’s what I tried.

I’m not sure what made me think of this, but I decided that we would read a poem by an African-American poet each morning in homeroom. I figured this could be a simple yet powerful way to celebrate African-American culture, and honestly, I just thought it would be interesting. You can find the poems I used here.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect the first day. Would the students really listen? Would anyone want to participate? Would the experience be meaningful to anyone but me?

I explained to my homeroom the plan for the month. I told them that anyone could volunteer to read a poem or even bring in a poem of their choice. As I prepared to read the first poem, I paused and thought “Why not ask for a volunteer now?” I expected dead silence and blank stares. Instead, an energetic, excitable young man – who happens to be African-American – said he wanted to read the poem. Overjoyed. I was absolutely overjoyed.

As the month continued, I kept bringing in poems, and my students kept volunteering to read. It might have only been 7 or 8 students, but when I started, I had no expectations whatsoever. And while my students sometimes struggled to read the poems, they truly committed themselves to their delivery. And the rest of the class? Quiet, respectful, attentive. Did they find the poems interesting or meaningful or enjoyable? I can’t say, but I do know that they respected my idea and made it a reality.

Students read nearly all of the poems. I had to read 1 or 2 because of time constraints, and I asked a guidance counselor to read one. Her reading of Audre Lorde’s “Hanging Fire” truly moved me. I had hoped that having a “guest reader” would be special, but I was totally blown away. I think the kids were too.

For the last day of February, I decided to talk briefly about the idea of Black History Month and close with a short selection from a poem that means something to me. I thanked my students for committing to the poem readings all month and told them that I would really miss not having a poem to read every day. Then, I attempted to tell them how I’d like us all to carry the message of Black History Month forward. That we need to spend all year trying to make our school, our community, and our country more tolerant and more just. I think I stumbled over my words a bit here. I was emotional, especially knowing what would come next. I closed with the last few lines of Amiri Baraka’s “Three Modes of History and Culture.”

I think about a time when I will be relaxed.
When flames and non-specific passion wear themselves
away. And my eyes and hands and mind can turn
and soften, and my songs will be softer
and lightly weight the air.

I’m not a poet. I’m not an English teacher. I’m not a literary scholar. Maybe this poem or any of the others mean something totally different than I think. I don’t think it matters, though. What matters is that we pushed ourselves to do something different, that we worked outside of our comfort zone, that we really tried to learn and understand.

But it’s not enough. I need to do more next year. I need to do more for my students. To let them know that their history and their culture matter. To let them know that they matter. To help us all learn to be better, more tolerant, more understanding, more generous in spirit.

This was a risk. I don’t know if I did a good thing. I don’t know if I made a mistake. I badly want feedback, but I’m also terrified that I sent a message I didn’t intend to send. It’s uncomfortable sometimes – teaching – but it’s worth it for those moments. Those powerful moments when twenty-five thirteen- and fourteen-year-old students devote their attention to listening to a classmate read a poem. I hope that I made a difference.

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