February 1 marked the beginning of Black History Month, which brings back memories of being in high school February 1986 and getting kicked out of history class. Why, you’re wondering? What did I do? It was more what I said than what I did. I was being a typical teen, passing notes, talking to my friends, and being disruptive. This is before cell phones and text messages so note passing was what we did. My history teacher, of course, noticed my disruptive behavior and asked me a question about the lesson he was conducting. I was intentionally not paying attention and obviously didn’t know the answer.
My reasoning for not paying attention was not your typical teen just being a teen reason. It was not because I hated history—in fact, I love history. It was not my dislike for school either, because I thoroughly enjoy learning and have always been a copious notetaker. I was the student everyone came to for a copy of my notes. Was I a bit of a class clown? No. I hung around the class clowns and actively encouraged their rebellious behaviors, but I usually wasn’t the instigator. So why wasn’t I listening and paying attention to my history teacher, taking great notes, and avidly learning like I normally did?
Well, here’s why. It was the subject matter being discussed and not being discussed. It was February, Black History Month, and no Black history was being taught. No lessons of 1739, when the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina became the largest slave revolt in colonial America. (Greendyk, 2021) No discussions of the first Black US senator, Hiram Revels, in 1870. We were not talking about how one in four cowboys was Black; which is not widely known, since most stories told in popular books and movies never mention that. (Greendyk, 2021) Did we talk about Thurgood Marshall, the first African American appointed to the United States Supreme Court? Did we learn about Jack Johnson, the first African-American man to hold the World Heavyweight Champion boxing title in 1908? (Greendyk, 2021) No. Not even the lessons of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement were mentioned. None of this was being discussed. We were talking about the same dusty history stories I had been hearing about since junior high; Christopher Columbus discovering America, Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves and George Washington cutting down a cherry tree.
So when my history teacher asked me to answer his question, I couldn’t. I wasn’t listening. I did what teens do best; deflected with grand attitude. When I quickly told him I wasn’t listening, he didn’t like my answer. This was no surprise to him—he had been watching me pass notes and act disruptive. He snapped back and said that if I had been paying attention, I would have been able to answer.
My response back to my underpaid, overworked, and very brave (for even teaching high school) teacher was not thought out or methodical. It was a response from my soul, from my heart, and from my hurt. I just couldn’t understand why in 1986, in an integrated school in the suburbs of Chicago, with multiple nationalities and a significant Black population—why were we not talking about Black history at all in February? These were the feelings and thoughts rapidly swirling in my mind and resulted in me saying to my history teacher that if he was teaching something interesting to me, like my history, I would listen. I went on to say that it is February, Black History Month, and we should be discussing Black history, the history important to me. I asked him why he wasn’t teaching that.
Ok, 52-year-old Stephanie realizes there was a much better way to express my concerns, and maybe saying his lesson plans were uninteresting wasn’t kind; but remember, this was 16-year-old me.
Sixteen-year-old Stephanie had a valid point. My history teacher could have considered February as an excellent opportunity to introduce and then educate his students about Black history. There is so much history that is inaccurate, untold, and ignored. For far too long, our stories and our history went untold. Thanks to significantly rising racial pride, the 1920s was the decade of the New Negro for the Post-World War I generation. Carter G. Woodson, a noted African American historian, scholar, educator, and publisher created Negro History Week in 1926 commemorating the Black past to extend the public’s study of Black history. (Greendyk, 2021)
These efforts continued to increase in the 1940s within the Black community to expand the study of Black history in the schools. During the Civil Rights Movement in the South, some schools incorporated Black history into the curriculum, hoping to advance social change. (Greendyk, 2021)
So, 60 years after Carter G. Woodson created Negro history week, there I was in Bolingbrook High School expecting this history teacher to teach Black history. Well, it didn’t happen. Instead the teacher gave me a not so kind option of listening or leaving, so I of course made the only choice I felt would solidify my stance—and I left, in a very grand fashion. (Remember, I was 16.)
Twenty-one years later, for my 20th year class reunion, I returned with my high school best friend and her teenage son. To my surprise, murals of famous and prominent Black people were painted on the walls. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Tears welled up and I fought back an ugly cry as I gasped. I am sure my grand exit out of my history class did not result in this change, but it felt good knowing that I stood up for what should have been. I was proud of Bolingbrook High School and excited that young, impressionable minds were going to see important, significant Black faces that formed Black History. They were celebrating the achievements and lives of Blacks, not just in February, but every day.