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Celebrating Black History Month Abroad

Ever since I was a child I have known February to be Black History Month. In elementary school is where I learned the Black National Anthem and every year we would host an evening program. (I’m pretty sure one year I was Harriet Tubman in a play.) Throughout middle and high school I completed many other projects to commemorate the month. (I vividly remember creating a NY Yankees hat out of supplies from Michaels so that I could be Jay Z senior year.) At church we celebrated by singing traditional spirituals/hymns and we would always have a dinner that featured soul food. In college, the gospel choir I was in performed at various events throughout February. In my second year of teaching, I remember strolling with other Sorors to acknowledge Black Greek Letter Organizations during this month. For me, there was never a question about “if” I would be celebrating, it was just “how?”

This February brought a new experience for me. I am currently teaching in an American international school in India. We were virtual throughout January 2022 due to the rise in covid cases across the world. Our school got notice that February 1st would be our first day back on campus. While I was excited that I would get to see my scholars in person again, I was also excited that we were coming back to school in time for Black History Month. I knew I was going to incorporate teaching my kids about Black figures in history. Now before you jump ahead and wonder why I don’t incorporate the Black experience throughout the entire year, I do, but there’s a special emphasis in February. In my previous years it was always a fun time in the classroom. I assumed that this year would be no different. I made a plan of who we would learn about this year. I planned to start on February 2nd because February 1st was the Lunar New Year and since most of my class is Asian, it was imperative that we celebrate that too.

On February 2nd we started our first read aloud with Carter Reads the Newspaper. It was very fitting because it is a story about Carter G. Woodson, the founder of what we now know as Black History Month. We read the book and then talked about what we learned. Each scholar drew a picture that helped them to remember this Black History figure and they wrote a few sentences to accompany the picture. (In the end this became a book that they took home to show their families.) My class had a lot of questions this first day. I was excited that we were getting to dive deep into learning about the lives of Black Americans.

Even though I started the day very excited, insecurities started to creep in a little bit later. I realized that from an organizational standpoint, my school did not formally recognize that it was Black History Month. I realized that all those years before it was easy to celebrate Black History Month because my environment encouraged it. Everyone was doing it. There were multiple opportunities for me to connect and dive in. Here, it wasn’t the same. I was a little upset at first. I wondered how this could be. I wondered how it would be perceived that I was observing Black History Month in a school that has very few Black teachers and students. But then I gave myself a pep talk. I wrote an affirmation on a sticky note and I kept it on my desk to encourage me throughout the month and beyond. It read “A Kieara ** is needed here. And there’s only one. Just be you. Authentic & Unapologetically” After this I went into the

library and I picked out the rest of my books. Here is where I saw that the librarian was showcasing stories that honored Black lives. (Later in the month during one of my class’ weekly library times she also read a story about Katherine Johnson.) I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one.

I decided to decorate the door to our classroom as well. At the top I wrote “Ask Us About Black History Month!” and then scholars added the names of the people we learned about as we went along. I was scared to put it up because I wasn’t sure what people would think, but again I gave myself a pep talk and I did it anyway. I got a lot of compliments and questions from other teachers and students.

Overall this experience has given me a chance to show up as myself at my school. I have been reflecting on how my identity plays a role in my job as an educator. Being a Black woman definitely informed my reason for becoming an educator in the first place, but now that I am in a completely different environment (country, and demographics of colleagues and students,) I am grappling with so much more. A few experiences this month have confirmed that I am in the right place though. First, I had a little girl (same grade level, not in my class) ask me “Why don’t you ever wear your hair different and straight like mine. Yours looks like a bomb went off!” This same little girl expressed “Your hair looks better that way” when I wore it in twists instead of my usual afro. Now as an adult I understand the reach of white supremacy when it comes to standards of beauty. I was also affirmed as a child and I actively work to build my self-esteem so that comments like this won’t break me, but it broke my heart for younger people. Younger Black kids that are still building their confidence and growing into their identity could have easily been wounded by these comments. I’m sure this little girl wasn’t trying to hurt my feelings, and there is definitely a lesson here about things you say, and what you keep to yourself, but at the same time this highlights the importance of representation. This experience wasn’t the best, but I also had some moments that made me smile. Our counselor was reading the book Don’t Touch My Hair to teach the concept of consent. As soon as the kids saw the cover they said “She has hair like Ms. Reed’s!” And most recently a scholar commented “One thing I love about Ms. Reed is that she changes her hairstyles all the time and they are all cute!” Lastly, a scholar came into the class one morning and excitedly exclaimed that she had viewed history! She had watched the speed skating Olympic finals and saw Erin Jackson win the gold medal for the first time ever. I know for many of my students they haven’t met many Black people and I know for sure they haven’t had many Black teachers. I am glad to open their eyes and mind to more of this world we live in.

Now I know many of you are probably thinking “Kieara, you are at an international school in India. Why would you expect them to celebrate Black History Month?” And to be honest, I almost let myself believe that as well, but then I was reminded in a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice session that racism is global. It is not a United States thing. And while yes, Black History Month was created and is mainly observed in the US, I work at an American school. My school is funded in part by American dollars. Majority of the international educators are from the United States. There are so many other traditions we keep that are strictly “American”. There’s no reason why this one can’t be kept too. On top of all of that, the effects of a white, patriarchal, capitalistic society runs deep. Unpacking and dismantling this system is complicated work, but a starting point at my school can be grounded in looking at the history of Black people in the United States. With this starting point, I am sure we can also begin to open the doors to talk about how colonization has affected India as well and how even though they may not be Black, colorism is definitely a thing in the very city we live in. These thoughts remind me of the quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Looking back on the last 28 days I am proud of the work I’ve done. I am proud of myself for making time to center Black stories and Black people when there is always so much to be done in the classroom. I am proud of my students for asking questions, for making connections, and for wanting to be the change in the world today. I am grateful that I had the confidence to forge ahead anyway. I am excited for all that is to come. I know that this was only the beginning.

Happy Black History Month to y’all! And here’s to Women’s History Month coming up next.

Picture books we read this year in Black History Month are:

  • Carter Reads the Newspaper

  • Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions

  • The Doctor with a Eye for Eyes: The Story of Patricia Bath

  • Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People

  • Radiant Child: The Story of Jean Micheal Basquiat

  • Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

  • Dream Builder: The Story of Architect Philip Freelon

  • When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop

We also watched videos on the following people:

  • Mae Jemison

  • Garrett Morgan

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