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Using Contemporary Culture to Teach Black History

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At the 2016 Grammy Awards earlier in February, rap artist Kendrick Lamar inspired thousands of viewers with an electrifying performance of his song “The Blacker the Berry” that boldly reminded America that he is unapologetically black. As an African-American teacher, I felt this was a moment in entertainment that I desperately wanted my students to absorb. Kendrick Lamar is an exemplar of black empowerment that I want echoed in my students’ hearts and minds when they are faced with racial injustices.

As we celebrate Black History Month this year, the timing couldn't be more perfect to remind our youth that Black history unfolds before their eyes every day. I strive to use artists like Lamar as a way to interest my students in black historical figures that they may not feel as connected to. As a current classroom teacher, I believe educators should use such parallels to increase students’ awareness, interest, and pride.

First, we should teach students that pro-black doesn't mean anti-white or anti any other race. To be pro-black means to have the ability to promote the awareness of people who have overcome (and continue to overcome) challenges and injustices.

Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance, in which tightly gripped fists from young African-American performers resulted in a buzz of gossip and backlash, shows how easily things can be misinterpreted without an understanding of the historical context. Before taking to the stage, Beyonce’s dancers raised their fists in salute to the life of Mario Woods, who was recently killed by police in California. At the 1968 Olympics, U.S. track-and-field medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the podium in the same fashion in protest of racial segregation. But what many students may not know is that Australian medalist Peter Norman stood in support of his competitors to show that the fight for equality is an international issue. Students should learn that the symbol of a raised fist represents the unity and strength of people during trying times. The fist is not raised to create fear, but to externally confront inequality while internally connecting a group of people.

I also believe that we must push the envelope beyond common figures in African-American history. While we wouldn’t want to give short shrift to the outstanding legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he is just one of many heroes to liberate the voices of oppressed African Americans. All students, especially those of color, should learn that our freedom is also attributed to people like Charles Hamilton Houston, Medgar Evers, Mamie Till, and Phillip Randolph. We should also note that many important figures of the Civil Rights Movement were white men and women.

An example of a significant Civil Rights figure who's somewhat out of the mainstream today is Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panthers. He organized men and women into an organization that fought for social justice for African Americans and other minorities. Understandably, Newton may be regarded by some today as an overly radical activist who incited and was involved in acts of aggression, yet teachers can also help unfold the numerous forms of positive improvement he created. The Black Panthers Party—the subject of a recent PBS special—was a grassroots organization that created many programs to support struggling families and communities, such as the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (W.I.C.), which provided clothing, breakfast programs, and other support for new mothers. Another courageous example was when they addressed the numerous traffic killings of children in California due to the lack of basic traffic signs. The Panthers’ complicated example could also be used to discuss the dynamics of power and the need for balance in political movements.

Music is another way to bring the struggle for equality into the classroom. It is an artistic expression of the world around us that allows listeners to share pressing issues. Although educators may be wary of potential racial tensions coming from lyrics of certain songs, students should analyze music as an art designed to provoke a set of feelings.

During the 1960s, songs such as “We Shall Overcome” were anthems of hope and continue to hold the same message today. Unsurprisingly, many young adults may think “We Shall Overcome” is a solely an African-American song, yet it's legacy is strongly associated with white folk singer Pete Seeger. Its words are frequently paired with the imagery of foot soldiers, black and white, the March on Selma, and other protests.

Since that time, we have found similar topics in all genres of music. Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce are modern artists whose music can help today’s students understand how music can be used to tackle social injustice. Teachers may find it difficult to engage students into the words of past-generation icons like Seeger, Nina Simone, or Billy Holiday; but the use of more up-to-date figures who often use their music to channel messages over the radio, social media, and iconic performances can be a unique way to thread together historical and current movements of empowerment.

For example, in the song “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick writes I'm African American, I'm African, I'm black as the moon, heritage of a small village pardon my residence, came from the bottom of mankind. These words are intertwined throughout his song and are a reminder of black lineage and the origin of man. In tracks on "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," to take another example, you can hear students discussing the definition of love—an ideal spark to help students reflect more on their identities and emotions.

We should also teach students that it is more than OK to praise and learn from people we cross daily, such as a teacher or parent, as examples of inspiration and change. While I applaud Kendrick for his inspirational performance, because of his celebrity status I do not have close access to him. Many students may identify with this feeling of distance as they recognize prominent figures like President Obama and Serena Williams as key figures in black history.

But although his platform isn't as large as Kendrick Lamar’s, my assistant principal Dwight Davis is a hero I look up to everyday. He addresses every student as if his own, treating them with respect and dignity. Mr. Davis is a genuine man who understands and shares the needs of his school, and I have access to this hero’s example every day.

If artists like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar can bring students to understand the positive movement that civil rights activists stood for, I welcome a blazing stage of entertainment as an introduction into Black history. No one should have to apologize for the greatness of who they are. To be you is powerful, no matter black, white, or any other race. This is what we should be teaching our students during Black History Month and every moment after.

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