April 3, 2013
For the past couple of days, I have been thinking about how hard it is to be a grown up. You have so much to worry about and so much to do. It is almost as if you are running a race and just when you think you are near the finish line, someone moves it. My life is now an endless stream of moving finish lines. I feel old today; not because of my age but because I am tired of not being able to see the end. (I keep wanting to put down my load and run ahead, slightly beyond where the end is going to be.) I have been thinking a lot about death today; maybe it is because my grey hair is starting to come back or maybe it is because cancer has finally come back to my circle of my life. I never used to think about cancer and about what it does to the body or how it affects your spirit.
Eleven years ago, my grandfather died of prostate cancer and though I did not bear witness to his struggle; I do know that he fought it with everything that he had. My grandfather spent the greater part of his life laying railroad tracks in the South that led to places in the North that he would never have a chance to visit. He was over six feet tall; taller than my daddy and every other man that I knew. I used to beg him to pick me up because I thought if he held me up, I could actually touch the clouds. He used to come out in the yard when we played and his shadow would darken everything and everybody. I remember his laugh, which sounded like music and made me think of sunshine. He used to kneel in front of me (this was long before the arthritis made it hard for him to do this) and give me hugs and kiss my nose. He had these huge hands. I remember that when I was a little girl, he used to grab both of my hands in one of his and help me get across the room. I have a picture of him before he got sick and, like every picture I have with him, I am holding his hands. I also remember kissing his hands when the arthritis started to set in and could not bend them anymore.
He was a fighter and he fought that cancer for two years. When he first got sick, the hospice people told us that he only had a few weeks before the end and then those weeks stretched into months and then into years. In my mind, I saw him as a soldier using his hands, his bible, his faith, and his laughter to battle back the cancer and keep it at bay. When I saw him for the last time—when the cancer had taken just about everything he had to give—he asked me if my son could sing him his favorite song. My husband held up our son and as he began to sing “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” my grandfather leaned back into his pillows and smiled, as the tears ran down his face. I remember that I cried when my son held out his hand and my grandfather, very slowly, lifted his hand and grabbed it. It was a full circle moment and though my son does not remember and my grandfather has moved on, I remember and that image still makes me smile and cry.
My son is now twelve and cancer, like an unwelcome guest, has come back into our lives again. Time has passed, I have gotten older (even more cynical) and I still feel as devastated and shocked and confused as I did when I first found out about my grandfather. One of my dear loved ones* has Stage IV lung cancer. Years ago, when I received the news about my grandfather, I remember going to the library and checking out every book that I could find about prostate cancer and after reading all of them, I still felt like I did not know what was really going on. Two months ago when I was told about my dear loved one, I simply googled Stage IV lung cancer and thousands of sites came up and after reading through as many of them as I could, I still felt like I did not know what was really going on. I kept telling myself that times had changed, medicine had gotten better, and the field has been revolutionized; but, in so many ways, it has not. There is still no cure for terminal cancer and there is nothing worse than having a doctor tell you that there is nothing that can be done to cure you. Nothing. At all. In less than two months after receiving the diagnosis, my dear friend’s voice has been reduced to a whisper and they moan in pain whenever I touch them. My friend has moved from being a vibrant healthy person to being bedridden in less than sixty days(!).
I first met this beautiful person thirteen years ago and back then they seemed larger than life. Fearless. Unafraid. They would enter a room and the air would shift just a bit. You could feel the energy radiating off of them. Pure power. It took a while for my friend to like me and for us to be ok with one another. In retrospect, I realize that it was hard work trying to get two big personalities to coexist in the same space, at the same time. It was after I had my first son that I think my personality shrunk just a bit in their presence. I was a young mother and a young wife, and I was trying to juggle every ball that I had and still remain who I was. It was too tiring to fight to be heard so in my friend’s presence, I just listened. And over time, the listening became easier. I learned to take a book to their house so that I could read whenever the conversations started to overwhelm me. I think that was when I started to grow up and realize that being an adult meant that I did not always have to remind people of who I was and what I believed in…sometimes just being there was enough.
I am afraid for my friend. Although I am a Christian (and so are they) and I do believe that there is spiritual life after the physical death, I am still afraid. I keep asking myself over and over again whether I am afraid of death or afraid of dying. I know about death (and really, who doesn’t) and it is hard to be afraid of something that comes as a thief in the night and just happens. I am actually prepared for death and feel like it is only a phone call away. Much like my parents did when I was young, I now jump when the phone rings between 12a and 5a in the morning and I am a little nervous when my parents tell me that they are not feeling well or when my nanny makes another trip to the ER. I remember the exact moment of every phone call that I have ever received where someone told me that someone I loved had died. But, I can handle death because it is the ending of a chapter.
I find that it is the dying that scares me, bothers me, and makes me feel unsettled. It is the constant chipping away that the sickness does to your spirit and your body that unnerves me. There are only a few things in this world that only belong to you and have always only belonged only to you. One of those things is your body, it is yours: every pound lost or gained, every scar, every deformity or mishap, every broken nail and grey hair and wrinkle, all yours. Your body is a roadmap that perfectly outlines your life journey and it is always working with you and never against you…expect when you get cancer (I can also add AIDS to this, though I do not have any personal experience with bearing witness to someone who is dying from this disease). As I watch my dear friend struggle with cancer, it is almost as if their body has turned against them. The cancer, like an unwelcome guest, has made itself at home and has no plans to ever leave. Unfortunately, this time, my son will remember this struggle and will, I hope, learn from it.
As I watch my dear friend, (literally) fighting for their life, I commit to walking this path with them for however long it will take. Even though I am afraid and sad, I do have hope (borne in a spirit of faith and trust) that they will survive this battle. I am praying that my dear sweet friend will win and that the cancer, at least on this terrain and in this body, will concede, throw up a white flag, and retreat.
*In the spirit of anonymity, I decided to use gender neutral terms when I described my dear sweet loved one (my hope is that when they see themselves in my story, they will be encouraged).
“There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”
–Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come,” 1963
In 2008, in the midst of a historic election, when I voted, I voted for the past. As a historian who specializes in the black documentary tradition, I am fully aware of the racial issues that we have been struggling with ever since our country shifted from being “a nation with slaves” to a “slave nation” and I know what it took to get our country to implement and enforce the Reconstruction Amendments. I understand how and why we struggled during the Civil Rights Movement and I have a good idea of why we are still struggling with race. At that time, when I voted for then Senator Barack Obama, I was not just voting for myself. I was voting for all of my ancestors who never saw the end of the American enslaved system and who died before Brown v. Board was decided. I was voting for my grandfather who died before Obama became the democratic candidate and for my grandmother who never had a chance to experience the joy that comes from having a black man sitting at the center of the American political system. I was voting, in some ways (and in my mind) to try and right some of the wrongs of the past. I was less concerned about Obama’s issues, his policies, and his speeches and more concerned about having a black family finally move into the White House. I remember the night that he won, when my grandmother called me, crying in disbelief that she had lived to see a black man run for President of the United States and win. Although she could not tell me one thing that he stood for, she felt that he represented everything that she had been fighting for all of her life. He was the answer to all of her prayers and because I wanted to believe in a new and better America, he was the answer to my prayers, as well.
When I voted last November, I voted for the future. In light of everything that had been happening across America over the past three and a half years—including the dramatic changes in our climate and in the environment; the ongoing conversations about my reproductive rights and my right to make informed decisions about my body; the rising illiteracy rates of children of color; the increased violence in our schools, communities, social spaces, and on university campuses; the gnawing feeling that I had that reminded me that even though the economy was getting better, my ability to provide for my family was becoming more difficult everyday; and, the ways in which we, as a nation, continued to struggle with issues around race—I voted for President Obama, hoping and praying that the world that I want to live in and that I want to leave to my children would come to past.
We are now two months into his second term, standing on the eve of sequestration, and I am now not completely convinced that things are going to change for the better. I actually believe in change, I advocate for change, and I voted twice for change but I am not sure if it is going to come as quickly as I would like. The arm of justice, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., moves very slowly and with this administration, it is a painfully slow process.
But there is hope: two weeks ago (February 19, 2013), in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the release of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the White House sponsored its first Black History Month panel. I was selected to present on the panel along with Drs. Jelani Cobb (Rutgers), Edna Bedford (Howard), and James Peterson (Lehigh), to speak about this year’s Black History Month theme, “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington.” It was (to say the least) an amazing experience and for the first time since President Obama has been in office, I felt like change was happening. I felt that I was in the midst of change and further more, I felt like a change agent. I felt differently about change on the day before the panel and I actually feel differently about it now. As I think about that day and about how I felt sitting at the White House and speaking about black history, I am beginning to question my definition of change. I have my own idea of what change looks like and perhaps that is the problem. Change happens in so many different ways and until I redefine or even expand my definition, I will never be able to recognize it when it is taking place. I get frustrated because change takes so long whether it is a change on a scale or a change in policy. It is painful and slow and involves incredible sacrifice but maybe that is what life is all about. Everyday we wake up convinced that we are going to change and do everything right and every night we go to bed convinced that we have not changed and have therefore done everything wrong (again). Maybe, life is simply about getting up everyday and doing one thing that gets you closer to where you think you want to be. I guess I want my leaders to do what I can not. I want them to be super(s)heroes and I want them to save the world and change it for the better. I must accept the fact that they are just like me, regular folks who wake up everyday and try to get it right. I must continue to believe that change will come; because change, quite honestly, always comes and it always takes a long time coming…
(from left to right) Drs. Claudrena Harold (moderator); Jelani Cobb; the author; Edna Bedford; James Peterson [photo courtesy ofhttp://www.aleliabundles.com/blog/]
Additional article on the White House’s Black History Month panel: http://loyola.edu/Media/News/2013/0221-kaye-whitehead-white-house.aspx
From 2005-2007, I worked as a middle school Advanced Academics Social Studies teacher at West Baltimore Middle School. As a mid-career changer (I worked as a documentary filmmaker for ten years), I did not really know what to expect when I walked into the classroom. I believed that I would encounter a room, full of excited students who wanted to immerse themselves in the study of American history. I envisioned two rows of students lined up at my door, dressed in white and blue starched linen dresses and shorts, carrying their writing tablets and instruments, and bringing me red shiny apples. I thought my students would love me and would see me as a fountain of knowledge and wisdom. This was my dream!
Unfortunately, my dream and my reality (which always happens to me) were not in anyway similar to one another. In fact, on the first day of school after fighting to get in the front door of my school, breaking up two hallway brawls, being called at least two of the words on my “Don’t Say” list, and accidentally bumping into a student who thought I was trying to frisk him, I realized that not only was this not my dream I actually felt that it was not my life! Those were the most difficult and most fulfilling years of my adult life. I cried almost everyday during that first year. I realized that these students—the ones who were angry and me and the world, the ones who could not read, and the ones who were growing up in extremely impoverished conditions—were the future. These students who struggled to understand even the most basic of concepts were one day going to be responsible for deciding the fate of the world.
I remember walking through the cafeteria while the students were forced to have yet another quiet lunch and realizing that I was afraid of the future that they were going to create. I could not understand how these students—who came to a school everyday that had bars on the windows, no doors on the bathroom stalls, no toilet tissue or soap, no vegetables or fresh fruit in the cafeteria, no books in the library or art supplies in the art room, no pencils, paper, or text books–could ever be trusted to create a world that I would want to live in.
I did not blame my students, as they don’t have control over the schools that they must attend, I blamed the system. I blamed the city and in so many ways, I blamed myself. I probably could have and should have done more, though at the time, I thought I was doing all that I could do. I probably should have stayed instead of going back to get to my Ph.D. and then escaping to the golden tower of academia. I could have and should have done more. If I want them to be able to create a world where I want to live then I must be willing to roll up my sleeves and work with them and for them to make their world (the one that I am currently creating) better for them.
My life was full of contradictions because even though I taught in the Advanced Academics program (there were 120 students in the program and 70% of them are currently attending college!), I worked in a school where most of the students were neither advanced nor interested in pursuing their academics. I remember when I was selected to receive the 2006 Maryland History Teacher of the Year Award because of my work with my students. I was both happy and sad: happy because my AA students were smart and confident and fully capable of carving out a life for themselves (because being smart and being recognized for being smart meant that they would have choices and opportunities); and I was sad because as hard as I worked for my 120 students, I did very little for the other 1000 students in the school who were reading below grade level and were not prepared to attend either a college-prep or a technical school.
In Baltimore City, by the time a student is finished with the first semester of their eighth grade year, they will know whether or not they will attend college. Since their high school acceptance is based upon their seventh grade test scores and the grades from seventh grade and the first semester of eighth grade, if they did not do well then they will not be accepted into either a city-wide (college prep) or technical high school. Their only choice is to attend their neighborhood (zone) school, where very few if any of the students go on to attend college. These are the students who scared me the most because by the time they became eighth graders, they knew that they were going to have very few opportunities to get the skills they would need to be successful in this world.
Even though I left, I think often of all of my fellow teachers who stayed behind to make sure that no child is left behind. This poem is for them and to them:
Teaching in the inner city is not for the gentle-hearted:
it is not for those who need constant gratitude, extrinsic rewards or pats on the back
it is not for those who want to do something else.
It is not a job for the light-hearted:
for those who never see the light at the end of the tunnel or the peak at the top of the mountain;
for those who do not love our children almost as much as they love their own.
People who teach are different from those who have been called to teach our children:
the ones who have been labeled, left behind, looked over, forgotten, abused and disregarded…
the ones who live in communities where motherhood at 16 is a celebration and jail time by 20 is a rite of passage
Our children and those who have been called to teach them are the special ones;
They are the ones who are responsible for teaching our children not only how to speak but how to speak up and speak out.
Those who are called to teach inner city children are wired to wear and they can’t help but teach somebody something even when nobody is volunteering to learn.
They never get lost in a sea of unchecked papers, have never met a child they couldn’t teach, a lesson plan they couldn’t write, a challenge they couldn’t meet or an administrator they couldn’t tame.
They are professionals and can admit the system’s mistakes, own up to their own failures and state very clearly how it used to be, what it could be, and how it should be when it comes to educating our children.
These teachers are real and are uncluttered by the need for recognition instead preferring to do it right simply because it needs to be done…right.
They choose to teach on the edge of discovery…where creative ideas and our children tend to be.
Their work in its simplest form is sharing knowledge and giving back to the children that everybody usually takes from.
They are grounded, well planted oak trees whose branches are made up of the children that they have taught, saved and loved.
They guide our children safely from the sunset of learning to the sunrise of new beginnings.
Over time, we have learned that teaching our children and training them are two different things…those who are wired have found a way to do both.
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson, through his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (later renamed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History), founded and promoted Negro History Week. He selected February because Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass‘ birthdays fell during this month. His desire was for Americans to recognize and celebrate the achievements and accomplishments of black people. The response was overwhelming, as black schools, black churches and black and white community leaders around the country rallied behind this call and pushed Negro History Week to the forefront.
In 1976, the celebration was extended to a month and became internationally known as Black History Month. Since then, the world has slowly changed — and because the racial, social and political landscape finally looks different, perhaps it is time for us to agree that this will be the last year we celebrate Black History Month.I have never been a supporter of Black History Month. Even as a young African-American girl growing up in Washington, D.C., I often wondered why we did not celebrate a White History Month or a Jewish History Month. Why just a Black History Month? Why did we need a special month where we could finally talk about black people?
I remember that the school cafeteria would always serve greens, fried chicken and cornbread and that the bulletin boards would have pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman (I dubbed them the “Big Three”). I was never taught about the accomplishments of black people at any other time during the school year. I never learned the full extent of black history; instead, for 12 years, I learned about this history in pieces: slavery was taught during week one, the civil rights movement was taught during weeks two and three, and during the final week we talked about King’s dream and how we should believe in it, accept it and try to live it.
The first year that I became a Baltimore City middle school social studies teacher was the last year that I celebrated Black History Month. At first, I followed the history curriculum, played it safe, and in February tried to cram 400-plus years of black history into one month. When I asked my students at the end of the month what they had learned about black history, one said, “So, Harriet Tubman was Frederick Douglass’ sister. She then married Dr. King and now they can ride in the front of the bus.”
Even though I knew that she was joking, I realized then that this is what happens when teachers try to condense history; dates and events are no longer important, they just focus on getting through the material. My students would never have confused George Washington with Abraham Lincoln or thought that the Civil War and the Revolutionary War happened at the same time. They were well versed in what they thought was the complete story of American history because they had been learning it all of their lives. The white American history that erased black people for 11 months out of the year was the only history that they knew.
I vowed then not to ever separate black history from American history again. It is one story that has many different parts, but the parts all work together. We are a nation that has come through slavery and have moved past legalized segregation, and though we are not yet living in a post-racial society, we are not where we used to be. We have witnessed a slow but steady change in American race relations, and things that were once taboo are now commonplace. I believe that the next step in our development is to reintegrate black history back into American history.
(I know that this will not be an easy task, because there are some people in America who would rather not teach or discuss anything other than white history. Such people — the ones who seem to be trapped in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” creating their own version of reality — really must be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a better world.)
We should no longer celebrate or recognize Black History Month; instead, we should teach black history alongside white history, Asian-American history, Latino history, women’s history and others. By pulling all of these histories together, we can then finally call it what it is: American history. I am convinced that we will never become post-racial, or colorblind, or even better than what we are, until we do.
Upcoming Media Appearances, Keynotes, Workshops, and Talks
Every Third Monday of the Month
WEAA 88.9FM at 7:40am
“Monthly Moments from a Historical Perspective” with Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead
3-minute special highlighting a critical moment in American history (from 1863 and 1963)
*January 21, 2013
WEAA Live Inauguration Special 88.9
Live show co-hosted by WEAA News Director and On-Air Personality Beverly Burke
90-minute special deconstructing American politics, President Obama and his second term, and the activities
WEAA Live inauguration special (Listen to MP3 audio recording, 100 min.)
January 28, 2013
“Midday with Dan Rodericks”
One-hour show discussing Black History Month, President Barack Obama, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the March on Washington
February 4, 2013
The Culturally Responsive Teacher
Two-hour workshop connecting black history, education, the Common Core Standards, and cultural responsive teaching
February 18, 2013
“Maryland Morning with Sheila Kast and Tom Hall”
Special segment connecting the Emancipation Proclamation with the March on Washington
February 26, 2013
Black History Month Special
U.S. Postal Headquarters
March 8, 2013
Beyond Myths & Legends: Using Primary Sources to Document Harriet Tubman’s Activism
University of Albany
This interactive hands-on workshop will explore the ways in which educators can present Harriet Tubman’s social jusice activism and her legacy in the context of rediscovering and reconstructing her historical narrative through the use of primary sources and storytelling in the digital classroom.
March 23, 2013
Women’s Leadership Workshop
Monday, January 21, 2013 at 7:40a