Black History Month: Thoughts From Vathlo Island.
Malcolm X said that quotation, not one of the Elders of Vathlo Island. Still, that Elder of Vathlo Island looks pretty cool, and I would expect that kind of wisdom to come from a cool looking guy recorded on a Kryptonian crystal. It’s also really relevant to what I do, on several levels that I’d like to address.
For years, I’ve tended to go back to a passage from “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” in class, with my students. Specifically, the segment where he functionally teaches himself how to read and study in prison, entirely out of a self motivation to correspond with people he respected, and be viewed as an intellectual equal. Long hours spent in prison, copying the dictionary, reading anything he could get his hands on in the prison library, and participating in debates. It’s a profound and moving passage, which sets a counterpoint to the business of public education. Malcolm X had to work hard, in prison, for something that everyone is offered…no…sent to in a mandatory sense, for free.
This year, that passage hasn’t been on the docket yet, in part because I now legitimately plan with several other English teachers. I’m thinking of suggesting it as a non-fiction passage coming up soon, since there is an emphasis on non-fiction in the Common Core standards.
The more amazing thing, that has me thinking about it so strongly, is that it is Black History Month. This school site has fewer African American staff and students than any school site that I have ever taught at…out of two hundred students, I currently have two African American students. That’s one percent, as opposed to the twenty to forty percent that I have seen in most prior years and venues. As a result…Black History Month really hasn’t been noticed at our school.
That’s not to say that Latino History Month was a Big Deal. The Leadership students really didn’t get that much off the ground for that…although, there was an attempt to do so. It didn’t go unnoticed. A teacher approached the Leadership Teacher and was pretty outspoken about the lack of activities for the month of February. Since then, there have at least been morning announcements about influential African Americans in history.
When I think back to my student who checked out of school, because he felt he couldn’t get a “fair shake” due to his ethnicity, I have to wonder if it isn’t this sort of thing that made him think so. It’s not an overt slight…it’s not like active marginalization. In a way, it’s almost rougher, a kind of passive marginalization that an outspoken young person wouldn’t be able to let slide.
One of my favorite quotes by Malcolm X is “My alma mater was books, a good library… I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.” I often feel that way, I’m constantly reading. I really attempt to convey and transfer that love of the written word in various forms to my students, but today, there are so many other kinds of media, that require less hard work to access, it is an uphill battle. The quote under the art is about that as well…the idea that education is the “passport to the future.” A huge number of my students don’t really grasp the value of the education that they are being offered now, they aren’t really preparing for the future today. For most of them, Malcolm X is mostly a guy on a t-shirt, if even that.
It’s increasingly solidifying my desire to get at least that passage from “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” into class, if not the full text of the book. We have a “pull out” planning session this week, so it will be easy enough to suggest, or find out if we have copies of the book in stock. It has also solidified my desire to do a strong final week of content on Black History Month this week. If my school isn’t doing all that much, I’m thinking my webcomic can, with some healthy commentary and/or book reports on relevant topics.
This post was mostly me working through those ideas, and also working through what the perceptions of students might be, based on what schools do, or don’t do. I did want to make the Elder of Vathlo Island pretty @#$%ing cool looking, in a way that would make my friends from the now defunct Comics Ink smile. You know who you are, fine people.
Next Issue: Sunshine Superman!