Monthly Matters in Black History—Jessica Samuel, IRT ’15

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Teaching Beyond a Colonial American Blackness or The Costs of being Black and not really American in the Classroom

By Jessica Samuel, IRT 15
American & New England Studies Program
Boston University

One of the most fascinating (and disheartening) phenomenon I experienced as a first–year teacher in an urban public school was the way in which the Black students I taught assumed that because I was Black—in addition to being a woman, “foreign,” and young—I knew less than my white colleagues, even when those colleagues and I shared similar demographics across gender, age, educational background, and professional experience. Comments such as “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” “what the hell is she saying” or even, “she can’t teach” alerted me to the ways in which my identities had predetermined my capacity, and by extension, that of my students. It became increasingly clear to me that years of indoctrination had led my students to think the way they did about Black intelligence.

Even more than thinking intelligence was colored everything but Black (or Brown), my students had also learned that “American” was the most reliable and legitimate label from which to expect knowledge and skill. As an Afro-Caribbean U.S. Virgin Islander—whose relationship to Americanness is fraught—it had become clear to me that my students had inherited a white supremacist, imperialist, patriarchal framework for being in the world.[1] Who my students believed was most qualified to teach them was not simply about years of experience in the classroom but also about years of experience being American. How American I could be directly informed my students’ ability to respect me in the classroom. That I had a slight accent, was born in a place they’d never heard of, and happened to also be Black meant that I would have to work overtime to establish professional authority in my classroom.

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Creating a Syllabus that Centers Black History

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Creating a Syllabus that Centers Black History
 – by Andrea Adomako, IRT ’14

In James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” (1963) Baldwin wrote the following:
The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become   conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education…is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white…to ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  

Today, considering the current socio-political environment we live in, Baldwin’s words still ring true. As students are taught to “ask questions of the universe and then learn to live with those questions” Black History has a historical role in inspiring the productive inquiry Baldwin speaks of. In recent years there has been a greater push to consider Black History beyond the month of February. Incorporating Black history year round is an important pedagogical shift that asks educators to elevate the history, events, and individuals that shape Black history both in the United States and globally. This shift begins first and foremost with the syllabus. Whether you are teaching a traditional History, English, or Engineering Course; or if you are teaching within an interdisciplinary field, the syllabus is the place to express and reflect your political and ethical commitments to Black History.
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