Cheat-Seeking Missles

Monday, March 19, 2007

Black Forget Our History Month

Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager who, when visiting in Mississippi, allegedly whistled at a white woman and was subsequently killed by angry whites, is apparently not someone enlighted black teachers want upwardly mobile young blacks to learn about.

Nevermind that his death is widely regarded as one of the sparks that lit the fire of the civil rights movement, making their upward mobility more possible. Nevermind that he's part of black American history, whether we like it or not.

At a charter school in LA, two teachers were fired after they planned to have their 7th grade students recite a poem about Till during a Black Hisory Month assembly, then participated in protesting the school administration's action when the administration forbade the reading of the poem.

The administration gave three reasons. First, and believe it or not, the more plausible of the two reasons, the poem was deemed unsuitable for young school audiences, says the LA Times. Granted, there's plenty of stuff in Till's story that you wouldn't want a kindergartener to hear:
Till's mother had an open casket funeral to let everyone see how her son had been brutally killed. He had been shot and beaten; he was then thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-five pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire to work as a weight. His body remained in the river for three days until it was discovered and retrieved by two fishermen. (source)
The LAT did not share the poem with its readers, so we don't know how rough it was. Certainly, there would have been room for the administration and the teachers to work out a reading that would have pleased both.

Second, believe it or not, the administration nixed the poem because Emmett whistled at a girl, an act the female principal of the school regards as sexual harrassment.

What is she doing leading a charter school if she can't apply historical context to events? A whistle in the 50s is not the same thing as a whistle in the 00s. And besides, would she justify Till's death because he whistled? Is sexual harassment now a capital offense?

The third reason is the most interesting of the three:
School officials refused to discuss the particulars of the teachers' firings but said the issue highlights the difficulty of providing positive images for students who are often bombarded by negative cultural stereotypes.

"Our whole goal is how do we get these kids to not look at all of the bad things that could happen to them and instead focus on the process of how do we become the next surgeon or the next politician," said Celerity co-founder and Executive Director Vielka McFarlane. "We don't want to focus on how the history of the country has been checkered but on how do we dress for success, walk proud and celebrate all the accomplishments we've made."
I wonder if McFarlane has ever heard anything about running the risk of re-living history if you don't know history. Even though the school's position is a refreshing turn away from the victimization that seems to be the dominant curricula at many black schools, it is very frightening to think of history not being taught merely because it's painful.

Emmett Till's death, the civil rights movement and more than 40 years of laws and court decisions have transformed McFarlane's "bad things that could happen to them" into "bad things that are very, very unlikely to ever happen to them." In that light, Till's death could be a positive lesson about how far America has come in so short a time.

The matter raises a final question: Who's poems do the children at Celerity get to hear? Is Angela Davis a positive role model they'd be introduced to? Maxine Waters?

I'd rather they learn about the black boy who whistled at the white woman.

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