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Moving Beyond Black History Month


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Today's guest blog is written by Thomas Owira, the father of three children from upstate N.Y. 

Who comes to mind when you think of...

Well-known politicians from history?

Celebrities from pop culture?

Military heroes?

Famous inventors?

Are the people you think of mostly white? Are there any industries or professions where you specifically think of people of color?

Knowledge is power. But when it's denied, diluted, or altered to fit a narrative or blatantly erased, then those who seek it are left powerless. They are deprived of intellectual tools they need to understand and decipher the social, economic, historic, and legal issues of their lives.

This happens for our students ... our children. I worry that my own children do not see themselves represented enough in the books and curriculum that they learn from in school. This is not due to the role models not being in existence. I believe it's because their white peers are favored over them, and that is no longer acceptable. I want my children to experience a more inclusive education.  

Today, this is glaringly manifested in the plight of the African American or Black inventors whose inventions lack exposure to the general public. Although, as a Black man, I have experienced discrimination in my life, these issues came to light when I was researching funding for my invention ideas. I was happy to discover the wealth of knowledge that has always come from the Black community and yet saddened that there hasn't been as much focus on Black and African American inventors as their white peers.

I discovered that during the mid-1800s, there were a high number of inventions attributed to Black inventors. What inspired me was that many of these inventions came during a time period of great injustice and servitude. Despite facing all of these racial obstacles and discrimination, these inventors found inspiration and courage to give the world numerous inventions that have transformed our lives, affecting our daily conveniences and activities. 

What are the inventions? Here are a few:

  • The mailbox was invented by Paul Downing (1891)
  • Red Cross blood drive - Blood plasma bag invented by Charles Drew (1945) 
  • Fire department - Gas mask invented by Garret Morgan (1914)
  • The hair salon - Shampoo headrest invented by C.O. Bailiff (1898) 
  • Home and office pencil sharpener invented by J.l.Lov (1897)
  • The doorknob was invented by O. Dorsey (1878)
  • Directional signals (1913) and automatic gearshift (1932) were invented by Richard Spikes
  • Traffic lights invented by Garrett Morgan (1923)
  • First propelled street sweeper invented by Charles. B. Briiks (1896) 

This Goes Beyond Inventions  
Over the last few months, as we have witnessed and participated in protests around the country and have seen people around the world protest against the decades and decades of injustice that marginalized populations have experienced. I have thought more and more about the experience my three biracial children will have in and out of their schools. So much has been happening in the world as my children have been home engaging in remote learning. However, the times they have been able to collaborate with their peers in a remote school setting, these important conversations about race have been absent most of the time. 

I understand that many people go throughout their day using tools for living that other people have invented without even thinking about those inventors. However, it sometimes feels that the important contributions of Black Americans are overshadowed by conversations and school curriculum that focuses on their white inventor peers. 

We Deserve More Than a Month
We are in a time that demands teaching, listening, and learning. Teach about our contributions as Black men and women, listen to our concerns and grievances, and learn how we can all remedy the inequities we have always faced. 

One solution is by highlighting Black inventors and the impact of their works. It's time to dust off the history books, rewrite school curricula, expose the hidden records, rectify false texts and omissions to bring truth and clarity to history. It's time to inform, inspire, enlighten, and change minds of an often-divided nation. And we need to do it outside of one month a year. 

This means that we have to be more inclusive with the history that our students learn. We need to make sure our children learn about the contributions of people that look like them but also learn the struggle those individuals felt when they tried to get their contributions seen and heard. We need more than 30-second spots of acknowledgement.   

Every year, Black History Month is supposed to serve such a purpose, but it goes by without the impact to the public it should. It seems as though Black History Month has been relegated to a picture book, a quick lesson, or a commercial that takes place during our favorite television shows. I sometimes feel as though Black History Month, although well-meaning, is no longer enough. It's time to reinvigorate the intent. 

It is time to make sure we do not let this moment pass. We need to engage in deeper discussions and make sure what our children learn is inclusive of the contributions and struggles of all marginalized populations. I understand that these conversations need to be age appropriate, but it seems as though what is deemed age appropriate is a bar set by one group over another. Sometimes I feel as though "age appropriate" really means that one group doesn't want to engage in dialogue because they are not ready to do it.  

In the End
Besides dealing with COVID-19 and its compounding effects, there has been an awakening of conscience brought about by the recent tragic events surrounding police brutality and systemic racism. Consequently, we've had demonstrations worldwide. The strength and force of this movement has been its diverse coalition of supporters. 

Every symbol, vestige, nuance, or policies of racism has been put on notice. But we will only see change when our children and their teachers can engage in these conversations in a safe space at school. Yes, we as parents can engage, too, but it's important that our children don't just hear one narrative at home and another one at school that is devoid of the examples of the diversity that makes up our country. 

This is yet another opportunity for schools, the media, and politicians to use more inclusive language and images that represent all of whom we are and focus on the contributions of all the people who make up the country. We need to be able to also discuss the painful past, understand where it came from, and figure out how to move forward together, regardless of our race. Too often, the conversations after protests go away until the next tragic racial event. We need to make sure that we engage in these conversations to prevent the next tragic racial event. 

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt's Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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