In honor of Black History Month, we asked our students to write a piece that demonstrates the personal significance of the holiday. 10th grader Penuela (Class of 2028) penned an essay on how individuals and schools should reframe the month to focus on positive aspects of Black history and the Black community.
What is Black joy? What is Black excellence? Well, in more broader terms, what is joy and excellence? Google defines joy as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” Google defines excellence as “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.” Since this country has been founded, Black people have been robbed of joy and excellence. Black people could not experience the beauty of joy because of the inhumane conditions of slavery, that have several negative impacts today. The excellence of Black people was and continues to be frowned upon, to fit the narrative of white superiority.
So, for this upcoming Black History Month, Black joy and excellence is my main goal. For me Black joy is acknowledging the terrors of being Black in the world, but prioritizing self-care, which can be done simultaneously. This means one should remove themselves from situations where they constantly have to witness Black people being mistreated. Instead, they should focus on the beauty of being Black, such as the culture and success. Black excellence means that I am celebrating the achievements of people in the Black community of several identities. Just to be clear, Black people should be celebrated no matter the month or our achievements. Black excellence does not mean to treat Black people like humans when they become millionaires, or make history, but highlighting the excellence of Black people in a world that celebrates the achievements of only white people. Black people must include Black joy in their lives because it is exhausting to focus on the negatives, which our brain clings on to. Black excellence must be inserted into our lives so that we do not internalize the idea that to be successful, one must be white. Though racial bias and our oppressed identities make it more difficult, we can be prosperous. Non-Black people must also include Black joy in their lives, not in the exact same way Black people do, but in a way that doesn’t only include a negative perspective on our lives. Black excellence is also key in non-Black people being able to unlearn the racial stereotypes on the Black community.
In American schools, the teaching of Black History Month has always been the same. Schools teach students about slavery, then Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. Black History Month has always been a time where students are shown movies of the whippings of Black people or them in chains. This toxic way of teaching [causes] students to only see the negative perspective on the history of Black people. The way our brains function, we can easily consume negative media, but can’t grasp positive media. I have gone through this personally, making me feel overwhelmed. Our school systems are set up this way to fit an idea that Black people don’t experience joy or excellence. This idea makes white people perfectly comfortable in their bias and privilege. History books will continue to teach the achievements of white people, centering themselves in all conversations. People may think that teaching or talking about Black history is working towards an anti-racist world, which may be true; however the way we teach it is crucial as well. It should be taught in way that encourages celebration and happiness. When we say we celebrate Black History Month, that is a lie. If we think about the word celebrate, we would associate it with a party or joyous occasion. How can we say we celebrate Black History Month, when we only talk about Black history in a negative light?
How can we start truly celebrating Black history? What do we as a society need to do to make Black excellence and joy a part of our lives? This starts with education and media. The information we show people from when they are young defines their perceptions on people for the entirety of their lives. When people have access to education, go to history classes, they need to be taught all perspectives of history. If someone is able to attend school, our schools owe it to them to be honest and teach many sides of historical events. The goodness and badness need to be taught because you cannot claim to teach history and exclude significant parts of it. If Black History Month continues the way it has been for years we will never know the truth of the past, and people in the future will never know the truth of our present. Black history also needs to be taught from several lenses. People cannot believe that Black people can be successful if their success is shown rarely in their lives. By this I mean, schools need more Black teachers and literature created by Black people. By doing this, our society becomes closer and closer to unlearning bias and seeing Black people as people.
In my own schools, I see a change in how Black History Month is celebrated. At my elementary school, for years we learned the same traditional topics for Black History Month. When I went to middle school, I was able to take social justice classes taught by Black teachers. Those classes opened my eyes to a whole new side of history, one where I felt empowerment and pride. In my high school history class, we learned about the Mansa Musa and other powerful West African leaders of the past. Growing up, Africa was always taught as an underdeveloped country that was far behind Europe and America. As someone from Ghana, I was overwhelmed with joy seeing the country of Ghana being taught so positively. Learning all this new knowledge has inspired [me] to talk to other people about this topic. It made me realize the power education has on our society, and the importance of improving our education systems.
Now, back to Black History Month. It is a month of joy and excellence. It must be celebrated by centering joy and excellence. It is important Black history is stretched beyond the month of February because as Sojourner Truth said, “Truth is powerful and it prevails.”