When I was a classroom teacher, I would go in on Valentine’s Day for my students. I would take the time to find inspirational and sometimes aspirational quotes by Black people and assign those quotes to each of my 150 students. I would put these quotes on a strip a paper and create candy bags with chocolates and sweets and tie the quote around the bag with a note attached telling the students why I choose this quote for them and then have these little love bags delivered to them during homeroom.
The theme would be, Fall in love with Black History. This would be the only time during the month of February that I would make an explicit connection to it being Black History month, because I taught Black History all year ’round and would not be held to these 28 days.
If you ask most people why we celebrate Black History and Culture in February, they don’t know. The most cynical amongst us will say because it’s the shortest month of the year. The more learned of us knows that Carter G. Woodson chose the second week in February specifically to honor the birth dates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
And today, Valentine’s Day, is Frederick Douglass’ (chosen) birthday. His actual birthdate and year are unknown because he was born a slave, and things like birth dates were not given to chattel. Douglass chose February 14th as his birthday.
Quickly, make a list of everything you know about Frederick Douglass.
I dare you to ask your kids to tell you everything they know about Frederick Douglass and I mean your own kids you’ve given birth to as well as the students you teach.
During his close to 80 years of life, Douglass wrote several books on his life, and when I think back to my schooling, I don’t recall reading any of them. I don’t remember learning about him explicitly in school. But maybe, one of my elementary school teachers celebrated his life and impact on America….or not. This blog is not about the life and times of Frederick Douglass.
I’m a little too messy for that safe road.
What I want to know, is what have you taught your students about Douglass? And because I like to spill tea, I wonder what have you taught about Douglass that could be considered controversial? Like he was a known womanizer and cheated on his Black wife who actually helped him escape bondage in Maryland. And that when his wife Anna died, Douglass married a white abolitionist who was 20 years younger than him. (Side Eye) Much to the chagrin of his children and society as a whole at that time.
But if you want something more appropriate for students to dissect you could go with the fact that Douglass was an outspoken supporter of women’s rights and was the only African American person to attend the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848.
Or maybe instead of talking about his many books, you talk about his newspaper. Douglass was the publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper The North Star, named for the direction and way toward freedom for those still enslaved. The North Star had a subscription roll of 4000 people in the US, Europe, and the West Indies.
In 1852, Douglass published his speech entitled, What, to the American Slave Is Your Fourth of July? a wicked rebuke to America’s celebration of freedom while they keep enslaved Africans in bondage.
Wouldn’t it be dope to ask our students to ponder What, to Black America is President’s Day? Or very specifically talk about Abraham Lincoln who is lauded as the great emancipator in your classroom’s very own North Star periodical?
Douglass wasn’t taught how to read until he was 12 years old, which made him lucky, because as we know, it was against the law for slaves to be taught how to read and write.
It is clear that Douglass took to reading and writing because it was a way to show he existed, and that his life, his thoughts experiences, mattered.
I have been thinking a lot lately, about our stories, how we document them and share them and leave our mark on the world through our written word and now, in this new millennium, through our snap chat stories. And I wonder if one the most impactful things we can share with our students about Douglass was his love for the written word, his love for the spoken word, his love for sharing and spreading the word.
Maybe the way we can help our students and ourselves fall in love with Black History Month is to make it, by writing it, right now, turn our students into auto-ethnographers, encouraging them to write the beautiful stories of their lives.
In the words of mother Audre Lorde, “If I didn’t define myself, for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
How about we honor Frederick Douglass and Black History Month by encouraging our students to define themselves, for themselves, through the written word.