It wasn’t until I went away to college in San Diego, that I learned that my public school education in Prince George’s County, Maryland was something unique. Beyond just arguing with a guy from San Jose about whether or not Washington DC is the capitol of Maryland (seriously, if you have to Google it right now to be sure that it’s not — and it’s not — then I highly recommend you pick up a book on American history and geography before the weekend), I was dumbfounded to learn that many of my fellow college students, most of them white, didn’t know a whole lot about black history. Here’s the scene:
It’s my fourth year of college, and I’m sitting in an American Literature classroom of about fifty students, as we begin to discuss our final group presentation projects for the course. Remembering this sensational project we did my senior year in high school recreating various scenes from the Harlem Renaissance, I raise my hand and offer to lead a group project on just that, Harlem Renaissance writers. Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Bennett, Richard Wright, James Baldwin — all some of my favorite American writers, period. We’ve read snippets of some of their works in this American Literature course, so I’m thinking that this should be a breeze, and definitely more fun than your average presentation.
As other students offer to lead groups on various other topics, I suddenly become the last kid picked in a game of dodgeball. One girl, a fellow Creative Writing major and friend of mine, joins my group, but the rest of our members come at the end, when all of the other groups’ rosters have filled. As we gather together to discuss the game plan, the real reason nobody picked my group becomes startlingly clear: nobody in this class has a clue of what the Harlem Renaissance is, let alone who was there and why this project will be more fun than the rest. Not one.
“Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”- Zora Neale Hurston
Where I grew up, we celebrated black history beyond the designated month of February. Teachers didn’t shy away from the subject of slavery, and highlighted the strength of folks like Harriett Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lead and supported the underground railroad. Like other kids across the country, we read books and watched films about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr, but we also read books like Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, a novel about young black kids growing up in Mississippi at the height of segregation and the Depression, and in one particular history class, we even acted out segregation for an hour (by birthdays! Not race. Please, nobody fire a very well-meaning and ingenious teacher) to get a better understanding of what it would have been like to be anything but white in days of segregation. As a Marylander growing up learning my state’s history — no, scratch that, as an American growing up learning American history — you couldn’t leave African American history out of the lesson plan.
I feel a little better when some of my group members realize that they have read works by writers of the Harlem Renaissance, without being aware of the movement they were a part of. The truth is, most white kids outside of New York probably don’t know much about Harlem beyond the Globetrotters, so as I try to explain my initial plan for our project, I try to recreate my imaginary scene from the Cotton Club as we had acted it out in my senior high school class. There’s Zora Neale Hurston lighting her cigarette on W E Du Bois’s match, who maybe shares glances with a dancing Ella Fitzgerald on stage, all while Louis Armstrong holds out what feels like the longest note on a trumpet in the history of jazz. It’s the “Nighthawk’s at the Diner” of the Harlem Renaissance in my mind, and I feel sorry for my classmates who haven’t experienced such a romantic vision. What glamor! And what struggle. And don’t even get me started on the art, in all of its forms, written, performed, recorded, painted.
“I swear to the Lord, I still can’t see, Why Democracy means, Everybody but me.”- Langston Hughes
There have been arguments for the dissolution of Black Studies Departments in recent years. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a hugely controversial op-ed piece by Naomi Schaefer Riley that claimed that black history classes had devolved, or perhaps, stagnated, as “left-wing victimization claptrap.” If there’s any truth to this statement where colleges are concerned, you wouldn’t find it in my public grade school education, and you wouldn’t find it at all in my college education, because there was no black studies class, let alone a department. What does that say about what students learn about black studies, in general? Not surprisingly, Riley took a lot of heat for her opinion, and The Chronicle of Higher Education fired the writer over the post.
According to author and Black Studies professor Cecil Brown though, black studies departments across the country have been shifting the focus from African American and black community interests to black immigrant issues, and the situation is becoming dire. In his book, Dude, Whereâ€™s My Black Studies Department?, Brown gives a scathing critique of black studies departments and classes as well, but his criticisms go in a different direction. It’s not just that there aren’t enough black studies departments, it’s that there aren’t enough blacks on both sides of the desk. Brown presents a plan for rethinking and reform of a crucial but largely unacknowledged problem in contemporary society. Students in my class didn’t even know that they wanted to learn more about black studies until it had been presented to them. If anything, it’s not just that we need more classes; it’s that we need to do a better job of explaining why non-blacks should be interested in learning about black history and culture.
And in my American Literature class, just how do my fellow classmates respond to my group’s presentation, a mock game show episode of “This Is Your Life” of some of America’s most prolific black writers? It’s not a perfect performance by four or five white kids, but it’s entertaining, and our classmates seem engaged. I can’t say for sure that anyone is going to go out and pick up a copy of Black Boy by Richard Wright afterward, but they’ve definitely seen something, and heard something that they weren’t going to get in any other class.