Exploiting Black trauma

Joy taken out of Black History Month

Although the original intention of Black History Month (BHM) was to celebrate and uplift Black people for their contributions and accomplishments, this month often causes high levels of stress for Black students. As teachers try each year to connect with and understand their Black students, they are often unknowingly placing harmful, unrealistic expectations on them to vocalize their experiences as a Black person. 

Teachers put a lot of emphasis on Black identifying students to engage with potentially traumatic content and be the spokesperson of the “Black experience.” When content that can be described as “racially insensitive,” information that is sensitive or provoking for specified groups, is taught in the classroom, one of two things happen. The teacher and other students are oblivious to the cultural context of the material and are unwittingly offensive, leaving it up to the student that is affected to redirect and correct the situation. Or when such topics come up, the teacher looks to the same group of minority students to share their personal, possibly traumatic experiences, for the sake of in-class learning. 

Pushing content that only reinforces and further perpetuates the narrative of Black suffering in history serves neither teachers nor students. A majority of the material provided is some extremity of glorified trauma that minimizes the Black experience in America to three stages: slavery, segregation, and police brutality. For a month that is supposed to be celebratory, the curriculum set for it is full of negativity and painful stereotypes. A majority, if not all, of Black students are aware of the hardships that they have or will face in life due to their culture and the color of their skin. It is not necessary to reiterate it for 28 days alongside the expectation to recant personal testimonies of their anguish. 

In addition to the discomfort many Black students are faced with this month, this is often the only representation of Black Americans in history they receive in their education. According to a study conducted by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015, only an estimated 9% of the U.S. history curriculum is spent on Black history. When such a small portion of your academic career is spent learning about your own history, and it is only negative, feelings of not belonging, otherwise known as imposter syndrome, are not uncommon. This lack of positive representation makes it harder for not only Black students to fight against these stereotypes within themselves, but for their non-Black peers to be understanding and compassionate towards their experiences without being biased against them.

A handful of Jones teachers, in non-history traditional classes, tried to incorporate more Black history into their yearly curriculum and spread it out to the rest of the academic calendar last year. But ultimately that plan failed, with what was presented being akin to tokenism. 

The scarce amount of quality content being presented during Black history month is disheartening for many of the Black students and staff. Along with the lackluster and often disturbing content provided during the month, many of the events that Black students hold to bring some light hearted fun back to BHM are not fully appreciated by the school community. While it could be a coincidence, when dances, school spirit and sporting events are happening, they are announced during AcLab with enthusiasm and full information, (i.e. time, dates, location, etc.). When it comes to Black Coalition events, and really any racial minority based club, there is a sense of confusion and general uncertainty when their events are presented, if they are even mentioned in announcements. This unintentional misstep or unwillingness to care is apparent to the Black students and affects the way they feel about the school as a whole. 

It would not be beneficial to get rid of Black history month or to stop teaching it in school. Black history month gives young Black students the opportunity to express themselves without shame in otherwise white spaces that would judge them any other time of the year. It also helps some students that may not feel as connected to their school community, especially at predominately white institutions such as Jones, see that there are other Black students that share similar, if not the same, experiences as them. 

The best solution to this problem is to give more content on Black history that tells the whole story, not just the negative parts that gain buzz. Black history should also be taught throughout the whole year, not just February. The same way other honorary months get celebrated, without exploiting the trauma of their community, should apply for Black history month. There is a way to teach true Black history and all of its aspects without glamourising, to the point of discomfort, the trials and tribulations that the Black community has experienced.