Token for Granted

As I watched Selma in the theater, I realized that every February we can anticipate the narratives of the same few people shared over and over again in movie theaters, on television, and in classrooms.

It is such an honor to share this is a guest post from Colorado educator William Anderson. He and his work inspire me!

Recently, my mother and I went on a “mother and son” date to catch up on how 2015 was going.

These outings normally consist of us having dinner and watching a movie. My mother is usually prepared with a set of poignant questions, for which I never have satisfactory answers:

  • “How’s work going?”
  • “When will you ever get married? You know your brother already has a baby, and they’re working on another one.”
  • “Are you even thinking about children?”

I do my best to avoid answering those questions, sticking to, “Work is great; I just love it.”

That evening, after the inquisition, we decided to see the movie Selma. The film depicts the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the work he did in Selma, Alabama to help bring about the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The theater we chose that day is located in a fairly new and affluent Denver suburb that boasts homes ranging from the “low $500,000s” and up. This particular theater pulls out all the stops— including a full lunch and dinner menu, with service that brings your order right to your seat while you watch the movie.

As my mother and I walked into the crowded theater to find our assigned seats, I wasn’t surprised to see we were the only Black people in the entire theater. I sat down and began to ruminate on the irony and implications of the situation:

  • I am the only Black man in an all-white theater;
  • I am the only Black man in an all-white theater watching a movie about another Black man who dedicated his life to working for equality for all people;
  • This man’s important work laid the foundation for my right to attend a movie in these circumstances;
  • Sitting in my ultra-comfy leather recliner and waiting for the movie to start, I felt hypersensitive to the fact that I was the only Black man watching the only movie starring a Black man in the entire complex.

The lights dimmed. As the previews flickered across the screen, my sense of isolation grew. During the movie, I watched:

  • The brutality that my people went through just to be able to vote;
  • Policemen beat old women and children with clubs;
  • Scene after scene of young Black men gunned down, beat down, and tear-gassed as they marched peacefully.

As a historian, the scenes were not new to me. The struggles of Black people to gain their freedom within this country have been one of the main focuses of my research.

But now I was in a theater full of people who might not have received the same lessons in the history of Blacks and voting rights that I did as a young Black man. For some of these movie-goers, Selma was possibly their first experience witnessing the brutal circumstances both Black and White people endured in order for Black citizens to finally gain the right to vote.

This excellent movie also made me reflect on the time of year it was: February, Black History Month. It’s the time when Americans say:

  • “Hey, maybe Blacks did play a role in contributing to the history of this country;”
  • “Let’s take the shortest month of the year to share the story of the same four to five Black people;”
  • “Let’s share the same story every February, because some people decided that we could ‘value’ some Black contributions.”

The tokenism that represents Black History Month trivializes the vision of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who founded the original Black History week. Dr. Woodson created this week, this special time, with the idea that:

If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.

But now, every February, we can safely anticipate the narratives of the same few people shared over and over again in movie theaters, on television, and in classrooms.

And that last sphere is where I see the greatest danger.

Parading a few “key figures” within curriculums all over the country each February only further illustrates how far we have NOT come.

And this is from a profession that touts equity as a core value.

Until the histories of all peoples are organically, authentically, and intentionally woven throughout all subject matter and curricula, we as educators and as a people cannot truly claim equity as a “core value.”

Black history, along with the history of all marginalized people:

  • Must not be sensationalized for a moment and then put back in a closet;
  • Cannot serve as a justification for checking off a box that certifies that we are “tolerantof others;
  • Cannot be token;
  • Should not be an isolated moment in time.

Instead, these histories should be:

  • A celebration of the countless contributors of color to the history of this country;
  • Integrated throughout all subject matter and curricula year round, rather than simply relegated to social studies or history;
  • Taught authentically by all teachers so that the contributions of all scientists, mathematicians, authors and poets, inventors, musicians, and more share equitable space in instruction.
  • We must also include the stories of historical figures who sacrificed so much to move ALL people towards a more “equitable union.”

As educators, our goal must be to advance diversity, equity, and fairness in curriculum and instruction that embraces all students all year long.

Let’s move away from “tokenism” and towards true integration EVERY month—one month at a time.

William Anderson is a 7th year teacher working at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver, Colorado. He teaches high school social studies and serves as the department chair. William’s lifelong dream was to be a teacher, and he couldn’t be happier doing exactly that.  He is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory.

This blog appears as part of the work of CTQ-CO’s culturally responsive team. Learn more about their projects here.