Maria Montessori Academy, a charter school in North Ogden, Utah, made headlines this month after allowing several families to opt their children out of Black History Month curriculum. The principal of the school wrote in a Facebook post that he “reluctantly” gave parents the option in order to allow them “to exercise their civil rights.” Ninety-four percent of North Ogden’s population is white, and according to the Utah State Board of Education, only three of the school’s 322 students are Black.
After public outrage and a meeting with the parents, the school reversed its decision and the parents who had sought to opt their kids out of the curriculum withdrew their requests. By then, however, the damage had already been done. When I heard this news, the first image that came to my mind was of the three Black students at the school because I know what it’s like to be in their shoes.
I attended Catholic school in the San Francisco Bay Area from kindergarten until college. Until I reached high school, I was the only Black student in my class, attending a school where only a fraction of students were people of color—and by a fraction, I mean there were fewer than 10 Black students, and two of them were my brothers. I loved my school and was fortunate to have had a positive experience, but I’ll never forget the feeling of constantly being surrounded by people who didn’t look like me. That’s why even though I wasn’t a fan of history class as a kid, I always looked forward to February.
Sitting in a classroom surrounded by my white peers while listening to a lecture about Black History Month brought me a sense of pride that I couldn’t quite put into words at the time. I used to jokingly refer to February as “my month” because it was one of the only times out of the year I got to listen to Black stories in class that didn’t solely focus on Jim Crow or slavery.
Our teacher would play documentaries about historical Black figures and events, and my classmates and I would ask questions and do projects on them. Black History Month highlighted Black strength and resilience, and perhaps more importantly, it put our struggles into context. It wasn’t just me who enjoyed the curriculum, though. I could always tell my classmates enjoyed it as well. It was obvious they found Black history—my history—interesting, and it filled me with joy to be able to witness it.
To my knowledge, no parents or students at my school ever complained about Black History Month, but if they had, I know I would have been hurt by it. Having gone to many birthday parties throughout my youth, I was well aware that for a lot of my classmates, I was their only Black friend. Most of their exposure to Black people was through me and through the images they saw on television, and neither offered a fully accurate depiction of the Black experience.
The thing about Black History Month—or any day when the curriculum mentions Black people—is that when you’re the only Black student in your class, all the other kids turn to look at you when the subject is brought up. Eventually, I got used to it and learned to just stare straight ahead when it happened, but it served as a reminder that my peers saw that I was different from them.
Black students who attend predominantly white private or charter schools are in a unique position. On one hand, they have the privilege of newer books, attending smaller classes, and individualized attention they may have otherwise been unable to receive in a public school. On the other hand, being a student of color in a mostly white school sometimes means you have to deal with racial insensitivity on a different level and are often surrounded by people who have been deprived of cultural immersion.
In 2018, Black students accounted for just over 9% of private school students in the U.S. and roughly one-quarter of the population at charter schools. Having a small percentage of Black students at a school should never be an excuse to overlook Black History Month or make the curriculum optional. If schools begin to do this, it doesn’t only shut off white students from being exposed to other cultures—it tells Black students that their history isn’t relevant or important to anyone but them.
Having my classmates learn about Black history benefited all of us, but Black History Month isn’t just an opportunity for white kids to learn about other cultures; it has a unique impact on Black kids in white schools. I know how important Black History Month is because it also helped me learn more about my own history and reminded me that while I may look different from my classmates, I had just as much potential and worth.
When my eighth grade class was instructed to do a project on a historical figure they looked up to, the other girls in my class chose Amelia Earhart and Jackie Kennedy. I chose Coretta Scott King, who I had learned about earlier that same year during February. I remember looking at an image of King, thinking she looked like she could be my mother. I was frustrated that King lived in the shadow of her husband and wanted to make sure I uplifted her story when I gave my presentation in class. Being able to find a historical figure who looks like you is something white people often take for granted because their stories are everywhere. While there is certainly no shortage of historical Black figures to choose from, we have to make more of an effort to learn about our history. We have to go out of our way to ensure that our stories are uplifted because if we don’t, no one else will.
Black school districts don’t gloss over white American history, so predominantly white schools need to make an effort to uplift Black stories, regardless of how many students of color are enrolled. It’s not just about teaching students about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. or highlighting Black contributions to American society; it’s also about teaching students what kind of language isn’t okay to use, amplifying Black joy, adding context to the struggle of Black Americans, and correcting harmful narratives about the Black community. It’s about Black students being able to see themselves reflected in history beyond slavery and Jim Crow, and see greater possibilities for their futures than they might have imagined.
Black History Month made me feel seen, heard, and worthy when I was surrounded by whiteness my entire childhood. It was the one month out of the year that Black history wasn’t solely taught through an oppressive lens. The curriculum is beneficial to all students, but it holds a special meaning to Black kids in non-Black school environments.
Carolyn Copeland is a copy editor and staff reporter for Prism. She covers racial justice and culture. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.