If you haven’t already heard, this fall Macmillan Learning is offering a “Black History, Black Stories” essay and video contest for college students and faculty: “we are looking to African American history to understand what has happened, what might happen, and how it may orient us in finding a better path forward. We want you to share your story: how are YOU drawing inspiration from Black history, events, movements, or leaders?” See the above link for submission details including acceptable formats and contest dates. I’m encouraging my students to submit entries so I figure this week I will draft one of my own to share with them.
Shortly after I arrived at the Community College of Rhode Island in 2007 I watched a documentary film with my US History II students -- part of the PBS series “The Great Depression,” which focused on the Joe Louis fights of the 1930s. Author Maya Angelou was interviewed about growing up black in the 1920s and 1930s. I looked around my classroom as she spoke. My students were then -- and are even more so now -- a racially and ethnically diverse group. Many had never heard of Joe Louis and only a few had read anything by Maya Angelou. What caught their attention, however, was her description of the harsh inequities of the segregated American school system. Her amazement at seeing a “new book” for the first time stuck with the students and we discussed it at length after the film.
Weeks later we studied Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and again the inequality of the past in our country’s school systems was discussed. This time with a new twist: students began comparing their modern day educational experiences. The suburban-students wondered aloud what schools were like in inner cities and vice versa. What they all seemed to agree upon, in spite of their various economic backgrounds and political differences, was that education should be equal. Listening to my students was inspiring in the sense that this diverse group of people have come to the shared conclusion, here in the 21st century, that inequality in education harms all of society.
So when I think about what inspires me about black history I’m most encouraged by the changes in ideology that have taken place overtime. I remind my students regularly that it’s easier to change a law than it is to change the way people think. And so while I’m affected by the changes that have taken place, I’m motivated by the reality that so many white Americans are still stuck in their racist beliefs. The first presidential debate provides dramatic evidence that we have people in power in this country who refuse to denounce the white supremacy that has plagued us since the first colonists arrived in North America. As historians and teachers, therefore, we clearly have a long, long way to go. Nonetheless, I will continue to draw inspiration from the small victories in hopes that our nation’s future is brighter and more equitable as a result.
Ask your students to think about their personal inspiration and to share it with us at the Macmillan Community. And, share your views with them as well! Visit this link for details. Even if your students decide not to do a formal contest submission, sharing their perspectives with classmates can, in itself, be informative and inspirational. I can’t wait to read/see the winning entries!