I Volunteer To Teach Kids Black History — But I Make Sure To Include Black Joy

One of my son’s classmates slipped me a folded up Post-It note on her way to recess. “Ms. Sa’iyda, you should be a teacher,” it read.

I have no desire to be a teacher, but her note confirms why I volunteer in their class as much as I can — and why I show up every February to talk about Black History Month.

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The student body of my son’s K-8 school is largely Latinx, Hispanic, and South American. He is often the only Black student in his class. When he was in kindergarten, I went to school each week to teach his class a new lesson on Black history. We covered things like music, science, sports and other things interesting to a group of 5- and 6-year-olds. We did briefly touch on segregation, but I tried to keep it as light as possible. Now that his class is in upper elementary, I knew I had to make these lessons in Black history something accessible. A coloring page about Jackie Robinson wasn’t going to cut it.

When I was a kid, I remember learning about the same few Black Americans every Black History Month: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Mary McLeod Bethune and Marian Anderson, just to name a few. I’m not saying that they weren’t important, but there’s only so many times you can learn that George Washington Carver came up with the many uses for the peanut before you begin to resent the jar of Skippy your mom uses to make your sandwiches. The point is, I didn’t grow up learning how contemporary Black Americans were just as much a part of Black History Month as the historical figures I always heard about. By only learning about figures from the past, kids don’t realize how intrinsically tied to contemporary American culture Black history and culture actually is.

What would be fun for a bunch of inquisitive third graders?” I asked myself, racking my brain for fun ideas.

Eventually, I came up with the idea to tie together the current and the past. If I took current public figures that they know, I can explain that their success didn’t happen in a vacuum, and that there are other Black people who paved the way for them. I chose to focus on music, because who doesn’t love music? Plus, Black music has often touched on the goings-on of whatever was happening in Black life. I could teach about segregation in a dry and uninspired way, or I could play the kids The Temptations and The Supremes and explain how they broke down barriers while also having to face racism and segregation.

Instead of just teaching the kids about the ills of slavery, I could explain what slavery was and also teach the kids how slaves used music to relay messages and tell stories. Listening to a chorus sing “Wade in the Water” will stir up something in them that they can take and use as an example when they tell someone else about the way they learned about slavery. Black history is often taught to check a box, and that doesn’t mean it’s making an impact on the children who are learning about it. I understand that teachers don’t always have the time to make sure that they’re teaching Black history in a way that’s interesting and accessible, and that’s where I come in.

One of the things I noticed as a child is how much of our Black history lessons revolved around the struggle of Black Americans. And I know how much we struggled (and continue to do so!), but I also know how much joy is in the Black community. Why didn’t we ever get to learn about those things? It was always about who broke a barrier, but never how their breaking that barrier changed the landscape for the better. We learned that Marian Anderson was the first Black opera singer to perform for white audiences, but we never learned about how Black artists changed the white musical landscape. There was never the joy of sharing Black accomplishments.

Kids know about rock-and-roll music, but they have no idea of the Black contributions to the genre. When I played my son’s class Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog,” their little eyes bugged out. Seeing Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing the guitar was mind blowing. Yes, Black women taught Elvis Presley a thing or two. They were (surprisingly) excited to see Michael Jackson and learn that not only was he a brilliant musician, he was the first Black artist to be played in heavy rotation on MTV. Of course I still had to explain what MTV was, but that didn’t surprise me as much. They all knew Run-DMC’s “It’s Tricky” from some TikTok meme, but had no idea that there were three Black men behind it.

By teaching the kids about Black music, I was also able to teach them a lot about Black resistance and resilience. I told them about songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Living For the City,” a song that talks about the everyday struggle of Black people, including poverty and joblessness. We talked about the Black Power Movement by listening to James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and watching Nina Simone sing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” on Sesame Street in the 1970s. We listened to a little bit of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and I was able to show them that, once upon a time, rap music was used to share the same messages.

There is a spectrum to Blackness that gets left behind when it gets taught during Black History Month. So much of our resistance and resilience presents as the joy and pride we feel in being Black. I can teach the kids about women’s self-respect and autonomy through the lyrics of Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” Or we can simply dance around and vibe to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” We can juxtapose the poetry of Langston Hughes with the music of Duke Ellington. Not everything has to always be steeped in the struggle.

That’s why I volunteer — I want kids to know how freaking awesome it is to be Black. I want my son to feel pride in the people that made it possible for him to exist. And I want his classmates to feel that pride too, even if it doesn’t directly tie to their own heritage.

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