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Because They Were, I Am: My Discovery of Black History Month

By Rashod Ollison

First Lady Michelle Obama greets third graders at the Ferebee Hope Elementary School in Washington DC
First Lady Michelle Obama greets third graders at the Ferebee Hope Elementary School in Washington, DC. Photo credit: The White House

Beyond the cyclone in my belly and my knees turning to jelly, the new classroom didn’t seem so bad. By the time my family and I had moved to the “big city” of Little Rock, AR, from the neighboring sleepy city of Hot Springs, I’d lost count of how many eviction notices we’d narrowly escaped and how many classrooms my younger sister Reagan and I had left behind.

It was February 1988, and I was in the fourth grade, the new kid at Fair Park Elementary in central Little Rock. I was nervous, of course, because I was the new kid. And nobody wants to be the new kid. But unlike previous classroom situations, I wasn’t the only black face in the place. There, in Mrs. Charlotte James’ orderly room, I was surrounded by kids who looked as though they could have been my cousins—black and brown faces staring back at me sans the entitled icy glares I usually got from white kids in Hot Springs. Also, Mrs. James was black, as stately and no-nonsense with her pearls and round glasses as the Baptist church mothers who silenced me with a stern look whenever I was disruptive in the Lord’s house. She was my first black teacher, and I was “so excited” like the Pointer Sisters.

After taking my seat, Mrs. James passed out stapled Xerox’d packets of bios on black exemplars of history. She said to me as she handed me a packet that it was Black History Month. I had no idea what that was. None of the schools I had shuffled in and out of recognized Black History Month. On the walls in her class, next to crude art projects on the bulletin boards, were slick posters of African kings and queens. A large somber photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose face I recognized from a commemorative plate at my Aunt Geneva’s, hung high on the wall next to the large round clock.

Mrs. James then launched into a lecture about Harriet Tubman, the woman called “Moses” who led numerous slaves to freedom. My only recollection of slaves at that time was a conversation with my drunk father—well, it was more of an admonishment than an actual conversation. Slurring his words, his eyes ablaze, Daddy told me to “never be no slave,” to not let any white man “turn me into a slave.” I was six years old. What the hell was he talking about?

But as Mrs. James went on about slaves and freedom, I was able to connect something in what Daddy said to what Mrs. James taught—that I was a descendant of people who had survived more than 200 years of bondage and injustices I’d never know; that because they were, I am. I felt a sense of pride in that hard plastic seat that day unlike anything I’d felt before. I’d always had a natural curiosity about history, going back to my grandmother Big Mama’s house as I pelted her with questions about the “old days” and all the unsmiling faces long dead and gone in the sepia photos atop her console TV.

An isolated and lonely child, I found refuge in music and stories about another time and place. I soon spent weekends in the public library, reading all I could find about figures like James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and many others whose significance registered more profoundly as I got older. In college, I minored in African American studies. My double major was journalism and creative writing. My directive was clear early on: To make a career contextualizing the lives of black folks, mostly in the arts.

My introduction to Black History Month on that overcast day in Mrs. James’ class sparked a lifelong interest in stories about blacks in America and beyond—not just retaining facts and dates about great people and events, but connecting the dots about how one thing segued into another. About how sociopolitical gains in one place often meant deep losses in another, usually for everyday working-class black folks like the ones I knew who drank too much and died too soon. History provides a road map for the present, leading us to enlightenment or on a direct path to a fresher hell. For me in the fourth grade, those streamlined bios of towering black exemplars validated my presence. I was no longer invisible.

But teachers like Mrs. James who took it upon herself to recognize Black History Month in her classroom are largely absent in public schools these days. Initiatives like No Child Left Behind are ironic in that many are, in fact, left behind in a sense—taught to regurgitate information for standardized tests with little to no engagement that nurtures critical thinking skills. Back when I was at Fair Park, which wasn’t that long ago, black parents who barely finished school instilled a deep respect in their children for the necessity of education. Teachers commanded and received respect. My educator friends in classrooms today tell me stories of blatant disrespect—students who cuss them out and threaten them with violence. It’s all routine.

The privitization of public education also means that kids who are black and poor like I was will more than likely get lost in the fray or ride the direct pipeline into the prison industrial complex. And with the recent confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, a woman as qualified for the position as a three-legged dog, well, prospects for the American public education system don’t look so great.

I’m fortunate and so glad to have been a beneficiary of maverick teachers, a stern-faced black woman who knew the importance of affirming the self-worth of a roomful of black kids with lessons from Black History Month.


About the Author

Rashod Ollison (1977-2018) was an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist. He was a staff critic and feature writer for the Dallas Morning News,Philadelphia InquirerJournal News (Westchester, New York), Baltimore Sun, and Virginian-Pilot. He also wrote a music column for Jet magazine. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ollison lived in Virginia Beach.