One February afternoon, running up against the week's hard deadline, someone had turned in an anonymous feature article about Black History Month that was chock full of tropes defining black culture, black history and black people. It was hilariously irreverent, politically incorrect and clearly meant to drive a stake through the heart of Black History Month once and for all. Speculation about the author ran the gamut of usual suspects but it was signed Anonymous and anonymous the author remained. There was never any question about it being published. When the edition ran our school was treated once again to a banal remembrance of "I have a dream" with a dollop of Malcom X on top for good measure. Done was our duty for another February. The principal had relegated the Black Experience to three pages of boilerplate and my editor was livid.
Driving her home that evening with a copy of the paper in her lap, my future wife treated me to a monologue I will never forget, starting with exasperation for the ubiquitous "As a black person…" that prefaces so many questions black people entertain from non-black people. That ride home was one of the days that I began to fall in love with her.
Now Black History Month is African American History Month, but it still lives on in many school calendars as the same perfunctory curriculum it was when I was a student. I have worked in those schools, each year treating my wife to eye-roll inducing accounts of pageants and readings, of lone black boys reading "I have a dream" to largely white audiences, or of largely white teaching staff lecturing majority black students about the nature of racism. I have never been fortunate enough to work in a school that got it right, that dug deep into the matter of the facts surrounding the collective experience of black people in America, until I arrived in my present job. At this school I get to talk about issues in realistic terms for both good and bad. We celebrate the richness and diversity of experiences without dumbing down the tragedy and legacy of slavery. In my classroom, as is so often the case, we subvert the larger narrative.
Elementary is a tricky age range and presenting developmentally appropriate material for any subject is paramount. As an Arts teacher (visual, music, performance, movement plus social studies) the variety of material from which to draw is endless. I don't have to rely on the tried-and-true but obvious choices when it comes to music, dance or art. I can dig deeper into context and create a tapestry rich in texture and nuance. No longer is a lesson about an artist or a musician but about a common cultural experience. Through the Arts children can catch a glimpse of life and culture from a previous era and come to know the beauty and the horrors in a context that makes sense to their small worlds. Children are capable of incredible compassion. Failure of schools and teachers to harness that is what perpetuates ignorance and hatred.
After finishing Chinese New Year last week (we made awesome lanterns with hand printed translucent panels) it was time to move into the official AA History zone of February. Each classroom teacher has their own curriculum but it falls on me to flesh things out. Yesterday we started with the history of Jazz, and first up was Count Basie. I love swing and my students loved the opening selection of this video from a 1965 BBC Show of the Week. The music is undeniably contagious. The musicians are classy. It was a natural way to set the stage for the hard discussions to follow.
I do not establish this conversation from the outset as "This week we will be learning about black music". I'm simply showing them video of an era long past rooted in an arts curriculum. Talk about rhythm, tempo, intonation and the mechanics of instruments, though, necessarily give way to the obvious, like "Why are they all black, Mr. Bastrop?"
It's a reasonable question and all good questions deserve questions as answers.
"Why do you think they are all black? Let's see some hands…"
Possible answers were: because they lived in a black community; because no white people wanted to be in the band; because black people make the best music.
Each of these were launching points for investigation. What is a black community and why do we have communities where only one type of person lives? Do you know that we used to have laws that kept black people separate from white people? How do you know that black people make better music and who told you that was true? (This last one, for the older kids, got pretty deep into media awareness and manipulation of stereotypes. That was a good one).
Today we took it a step further with Dizzy Gillespie playing for a live TV audience in France, again 1965. Great discussion with the older grades about this amazing duet, the dueling sounds of trumpet and flute and the nature of improvisation. We have such a rich relationship and understand each other's verbal shorthand. I am continuously astounded at how perceptive and intuitive these kids are when it comes to the arts.
Of course, yesterday's conversation about segregation became a discussion of why black jazz musicians so loved to perform in France. When you are Dizzy Gillespie or another well known musician, having to use the service entrance and eat in the kitchen of that fine hotel you are performing in is an insult far removed in Paris of the day.
Of course, his bent horn and bullfrog cheeks won them over, as did the music and sharp outfits, so the racism behind the era was in sharp focus in these vintage films. Not a kid in my classes will ever hear jazz again without remembering that with the deep improvisation comes a deep heritage, as rich in beauty as it is in pain.
Kitchen Table Kibitzing is a community series for those who wish to share part of the evening around a virtual kitchen table with kossacks who are caring and supportive of one another. So bring your stories, jokes, photos, funny pics, music, and interesting videos, as well as links—including quotations—to diaries, news stories, and books that you think this community would appreciate. Readers may notice that most who post diaries and comments in this series already know one another to some degree, but newcomers should not feel excluded. We welcome guests at our kitchen table, and hope to make some new friends as well.