Two years ago, as a Year 2 ELA teacher at Building 21 Philadelphia, I joined forces with our school’s African American history teacher, Jared McElroy, to teach a year-long interdisciplinary studio called “Building an Anti-Racist Society,” with the novel Stamped as our anchor text for our Year 2 students at Building 21 Philadelphia. Throughout this studio, where we specifically focused on the historical as well as personal implications of “The Danger of a Single Story,” students examined not only the single story or myth created about Africans to justify slavery and oppression but also how single stories can be told of us as individuals. Here, students analyzed how these myths have historic and national impact, as well as impact upon our personal and social identities. In a culminating task aligned to both our Social Studies and ELA competencies, students read about and researched various African civilizations to counter the myths about Africans and to show the enduring accomplishments of Africans. The ELA culminating task was for students to write a personal reflection examining a single story or myth that they have encountered related to their social identity, to research someone who has struggled with the same myth, and finally to examine how they have dealt with it or overcome this challenge, while also analyzing the impact of an individual’s action (SS 1.4).
However, while we taught this studio before, in teaching the origin, spread, and embedding of these racist myths, we as teachers, and as white teachers, understand and have an apprehension about the pain that teaching about such ingrained trauma can bring to our mostly black students. Several years ago, I was teaching a smaller studio centered around themes related to the justice system, where students researched various aspects of our criminal justice system, including topics such as mass incarceration and private prisons. I will never forget a 10th grade young woman with whom I had a strong relationship, and her visible trauma from learning the history of unjust incarceration of African Americans. Her strong and painful reaction to the material caused me to reflect on how we were engaging students in this content and other content related to the course.
Shortly after that teaching experience, I sought guidance from our school’s Behavioral Health staff and Restorative Practices expert, David Sparrow, in how I might address such charged and painful topics going forward. He left me with advice that I will never forget; he told me that when we explore and learn about events that involve trauma, especially racial trauma, it is almost like opening up a patient for surgery. And just as the moments of instruction and teaching are important, so are the moments of closure, for that is when healing can begin. And just as the wounds are opened up, the wounds must be closed again. This can occur in any number of ways, both inside and outside of the classroom, in opportunities for reflection provided by the teacher, which might include journaling, reflection, or proactive circles, to name a few. But still, I was left with an ongoing internal conflict about the content of the curriculum and how overwhelmingly heavy it was to teach and to bring to students.
While the metaphor of the opening wound might seem violent and dramatic, it is not an exaggeration to say that what we teach emotionally or mentally impacts our students in such a manner, and therefore must be treated with such weight. This weight, along with the unfinished conflict about how to teach the complete narrative of African American history, led us to many discussions, reflection, and research as we considered the studio for a second year. The dilemma we faced is laid out in “Black History Month: Teaching the Complete History” by Teaching Justice, and cites research by Stephanie P. Jones, founder of Mapping Racial Trauma in Schools, where frequently “the transatlantic slave trade and its resulting horror within the American slavery system are essentialized as all Black history itself.”
Additionally, Jones “found that the hard histories of slavery, the civil rights movement and other traumatic events in Black history are frequently mistaught or introduced with little context.” But how can we solve for this challenge? It is certainly not to ignore, whitewash, or sugarcoat the painful reality of American history. Any alternative short of the complete Black history is much like Adichie’s warning, where “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Therefore, our challenge was to tell the complete story, which is a story, as the article suggests, of providing students the opportunity to learn about humanizing experiences. Enter Black Joy.
Again, as white teachers, we understand that we have never experienced Black Joy. This is obvious to our students, and we put that on the table for discussion with them as well. And yet, in our combined classes, we introduced and discussed what this might look like for our students, starting with the nature of what the human experience of joy is, and how it can be experienced despite suffering and inhumane circumstances. Where Mr. McElroy and I always tried to balance the pain in the content and authenticity of the experience with the accomplishments of African Americans, we found that Black Joy as an infusion to the studio is something the students always return to. As part of the studio frame, students now return to the questions: Where has Black Joy occurred throughout the course of American history alongside the trauma and suffering? Where did Black Joy express itself as early as the ancient African civilizations we studied and that students were able to identify and use as counter-claims to the early American racist myths? Where does Black Joy occur today and personally for our students, and how is it a form of resistance? How does Black Joy show up in building an anti-racist society?
Our essential questions have expanded to become more complete, to fully express and answer complex questions that examine a more complete narrative rather than only the oppressive one. The temptation might be to sugarcoat a history with pivotal celebratory or temporal moments like Reconstruction. But an abiding commitment to return to Black Joy really moves our examination of a society that involves enlightenment and empowerment, enduring states powered by short bursts or shorter moments of joy. A study of Ida B. Wells and a student created-podcast interview with her as a historical figure can capture this joy as a moment in time, but her contribution to journalism empowers our students as writers and advocates for anti-racism in an enduring way.
Many student reflections write that Black Joy is something that they never learned about or considered, but now is a concept that we can always return to or experience regardless of external circumstances, just as it was modeled throughout American history. And the historical becomes personal, as a student wrote:
Certainly, as we emerge from the darkness of a pandemic and the inherent challenges found in teaching authentic and realistic African American history, we will continue to center learning around Black Joy as well, to humanize experiences and to tell the complete story.
Sara Grieb is an English Teacher at Building 21 Philadelphia.
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