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Jim Crow, Football Hero

February 26, 2012

As another Black History Month comes to a close, I couldn’t help notice how little attention seems to be paid to it. At first thought this is a good thing, a sign that attitudes have changed enough so that the oversights of the past no longer exist. Then I think back to what occurred in my own classroom just a few short years ago, and I have serious doubts about that conclusion.

Martin Luther King freed the slaves. Jim Crow was a famous football player. There is still slavery in the South. These are amongst the many astounding pieces of “information” the adolescents in my classes possessed. How could this possibly be? How can one grow up in America, be educated for nine years in good schools, be constantly exposed to information in media of all kinds, and still be so in the dark about such a major element of our nation’s — and indeed the world’s — history, one which still has a profound effect on our country today?

As a Language Arts teacher, my curriculum included nonfiction literature, writing of many types (especially persuasive and expository), as well as research. We were also charged with the responsibility of something called “character education.” What better opportunity could present itself than the topics opened up through Black History Month? Killing two birds with one educational stone became part of my mission.

Sometimes the story of the African-American in this country from slavery through segregation became the subject of a research project. The goal was to learn the nuts and bolts of good research from note card production to documentation to final MLA format copy, a tool that would serve the students well the rest of their school years. Other times it became the fodder for a persuasive essay, another academic necessity and a primary focus of the state Language Arts test.

Along the way, these students were exposed, many for the first time it seems, to the horrors of the slave trade and the incredible injustice and indignity of the Jim Crow Laws. They expressed shock at the brutality of the treatment the captured Africans endured and the abject misery of the Middle Passage followed by a life as mere property. They were stunned and incredulous that a country which purported to live by the ideals of liberty and justice for all could impose such arbitrary and restrictive practices on that portion of the population living in servitude and then, after the Civil War, supposedly free. I was glad for these reactions, for they are proper and fitting, but there was a positive side as well. The students were also inspired by the words and deeds of those who stood up to the injustice. They were encouraged by the amount that was accomplished by them in the face of great odds. They also wisely recognized that there is some work in this area still to be done, and that it was their generation who would be responsible for doing it.

It is always a mystery to teachers exactly what and how much their students take from their classes. It was my hope that both the language arts and the character lessons during Black History Month would be internalized and not be just another exercise in “school stuff” that needed to be completed and then forgotten. I saved copies of many of my students’ compositions, and as I reread them, I see sincerity in the reactions they had to what they learned. I trust it was real, for if we are indeed going to continue to make strides and actually see the day when, as succinctly put in the lyrics of the Wailers’ song, “there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation….(and) the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes,” we will need members of our society who take this to heart. Black History Month was and still is one necessary step in that process.

It is not enough to merely pay lip service to the paramount American ideal of equality. We have enough hollow politicians doing that. An America that truly lives up to its principles must recognize its shortcomings and address them through meaningful action.  It is my wish that at least some of my students take their place on the front line of that ongoing battle.

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