February 2, 2021
Dear Bank Street Community,
February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month in America. Reflecting on this month and recent events has afforded me an opportunity to consider the ways in which we recognize and highlight historically oppressed and marginalized groups. Between living through a global pandemic, America’s xenophobia, and spotlighting the obvious disparities in healthcare and education, 2020 brought us an uprising. We received a loud call for America to acknowledge the humanity of Black folks and confirmed what we’ve always known… that racism is still alive and well. This all took place against the backdrop of a historic election and deeply polarized nation, culminating in an open insurrection of White supremist proportions… 2020 showed us and 2021 reminds us that history is not just about the past… It is also our present.
Many communications went out yesterday acknowledging the start of Black History month. These types of communications occur regularly in an effort to appreciate various historically marginalized groups that are often erased or silenced the rest of the year. These acknowledgements are published in a group's “respective month”. Truth be told, I find engaging in these types of communications problematic in that they perpetuate a narrative that our every day history is owned by the dominant culture — a narrative I don’t agree with. History is neither static nor linear, it is all encompassing and nuanced, and should be inclusive. It is time to change the narrative. I value the enormous efforts folks have had to make to first be recognized as having a history beyond enslavement and the Civil Rights Movement. However, we need to accept that Black history is an integral part of America’s history. As such, it should be incorporated into American history curriculum. This could shift America’s narrative and understanding of its people by creating an opportunity for other stories to be told in an historical context.
Whether our American story is a consequence of horrific enslavement, fleeing persecution, seeking new opportunity, or being born here, we have all inherited a country that we know is rooted in the oppression and violence of “othering” human beings. For some of us, we continue to fight to be treated equitably and be recognized in our full humanity. For others the capacity of some family members to assimilate and become part of the dominant culture is rooted in a deep loss of familial traditions and customs. And because of this, our understanding and learning of America’s whole history should not be portioned out on specific dates as a reminder to appreciate it in its entirety.
To support our work around race based conversations, the BIPOC Affinity Group decided to read Isabel Wilkerson’s newest book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. In it she writes,
“We in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say, ‘I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked Indigenous people, never owned slaves.’ And, yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.”
The Trump administration established the 1776 Commission in an effort to produce a report that sought to counter the 1619 Project. In it, they called upon schools to return to teaching European-based American history. If adopted, this recommendation would have resulted in the erasure of Americans who deserve equal recognition for their contributions to this country. The creation of this report was an effort to discredit the investigation of the 1619 Project while negating the importance of critical race theory in education. It is critical that educators who claim an interest in equity based approaches intentionally intersect social and racial justice into their curriculum.
I would be remiss if I did not state that some of our Bank Street educators have been doing this day in and day out. And I’d be lying if I didn’t name there are many educators who struggle with this and do not understand what this could look like. I’d suggest telling the stories of America’s Freedom Riders and abolitionists. Intersect this history with the stories of immigrants arriving from Europe and beyond who felt compelled to give up their culture to assimilate into White America. When discussing women’s empowerment, engage in a full conversation around the feminist movement and center the anti-Black contradictions that made this an exclusionary movement while preaching equity and inclusion. Include in these discussions the Combahee River Collective’s response to the anti-Blackness of the feminist movement. Be sure to discuss the history of medical experimentation on Black people when debating the rise and use of vaccines and how modern medicine evolved. Highlight the significance of the Stonewall Riots and very explicitly name Marsha P. Johnson on equitable footing alongside Harvey Milk for their shared and necessary contributions to the LGBTQ+ movement. And when we talk about safe spaces, spotlight why advocates fought to have a school dedicated to the safety and education of LGBTQ+ youth in New York City. Highlight the role of Chinese immigrants who died building the transcontinental railroad and how they helped completely change the American landscape. Talk about how there is very little difference between putting Latinx immigrant children in cages and Japanese internment camps. There is a plethora of American history to be named missing here but my point is that to relegate these histories as “special mentions'' in the appropriate month, erases the human beings who helped shape and contribute to this country.
I want to explicitly state that this is not an effort to “multiculturalize” Black History month or minimize the importance of individual group recognition in any other month. By valuing the whole history of Black folks beyond this month of February and as full citizens of this country we create an opportunity to “unerase” diverse histories and provide an option for other stories to be told. This is a call for real inclusivity about the people who helped build this nation but were unable to benefit from their labor and sacrifices. American history is our collective history. And I’d also challenge all of us to find joy in and recognition in our individual narratives and history, to know them fully and deeply in order to lovingly become a resource by which we can integrate these collective histories fully into this old house that we call America.
Vice President for Governance, Social Justice, Equity, and Inclusion