I Started This School Year Talking About My History So My Students Could Discover Their Own Identity

I started this year with only two things on my mind: 1) helping my students develop positive racial identities and 2) building a community within a community.  

Last year, because of the events that happened in Charlottesville, and with my own personal connection as a UVA alumni, I introduced my students to the history of African-Americans in Charlottesville.   

Instead of focusing on another city or state for this school year, I decided to challenge my students to discover the history that lies within their own families and communities. After re-reading Jamilah Pitt’s statement in Teaching Tolerance, I realized I wanted to start this year not just with issues of race, but with students buying into the importance of their own identity. But I knew if I was going to ask my students to take on this task, I would need to take the first step into my own journey first.

I Did Some Homework

I always wanted to learn more about my grandmother, her history, and what she went through growing up in both Grenada to Trinidad.  Knowing little, I called up my Dad and asked him to complete a one-page homework assignment where he describes his mother. I asked my father to share information about my grandmother’s background and whatever he wanted students to know about his mother.  

From this simple (and yet big ask) I learned so much. My grandmother is part Caribbean and part enslaved-African (origin unknown). My grandmother also didn’t know how to read or write, and signed documents with her thumb print. 

I was obviously moved by this, and so were my students as they read my Dad’s diary entry.  My first “primary source” that students annotated was a diary entry I asked my Dad to write.  Double Dope.

As I read and re-read my father’s homework entry with my students, I became more fascinated with Caribbean history. Due to my own research and questioning, I discovered the following information that I shared with students in the lessons that followed:

  • There’s a location in Grenada known as Leaper’s Hill where the Caribs resisted enslavement by the French by taking their own lives. There is also a current cultural discussion about the language and symbolism of a monument about this history.
  • Grenada is also home to one of the largest slave rebellions in the Caribbean lead by Julien Fedon.
  • Trinidad was discovered on Columbus’s third voyage, and, according to my Dad, hence the prefix “tri.” It is also said that the “tri” came from the three hills that were seen as symbols of the Trinity.
  • Trinidad’s culturally significant steel pan is a beautiful instrument that has influences from the Yoruba, Shango, and more.
  • Trinidad’s carnival was originally “white only” and it took Trinidadian resistance to culturally re-own that event.

A Conversation That Never Would Have Happened Had I Not Shared My Own History

While I was talking about the history of the Caribbean, I had an African-American student ask if Black people can be racist.  

I answered by saying, “Yes. There is something called intra-racism and it is actually something my students wrestled with last year. As a community, we need to ensure we are all fully supporting our African and Caribbean peers.  Some students have shared with me how often they have been made fun of. When you make fun of one of these students, you are making a racist statement and supporting oppression. And it not only offends me, but it offends my Dad, his mom, and so forth.”

The only reason why this conversation happened was because I took the time to share with my students my own history. For the first time I have Caribbean students from St. Vincent, Trinidad, Jamaica, and more, telling me more about their own family. This experience helped me realize to what extent that even in my majority Black urban school, some identities can be even further marginalized. I have also realized that I’m not just teaching African-American history, I am actually teaching Africana Studies.

At the end of this opening unit each student dedicated their learning in history on a Sankofa bird to someone in their family or community. My exemplar was a Sankofa bird I painted with my Grandmother’s name on it. Everyone presented their Sankofa dedication to the class. This performance task felt like the positive and right way to start.

We know that plenty of American history is fraught with institutional racism, oppression, as well as the love, resistance, community, and self-determination necessary to combat these institutional injustices. This is the framework that our school community uses to build the school-to-activism pathway.

 

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Abigail Henry

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