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We Teach Ourselves

When my mother emigrated to the US from British Guiana in 1949, she was already a certified primary school teacher. But the prejudice of the times prevented her from securing a teaching position in American public schools.

So she, with a couple of other Caribbean teachers and two Anglican priests, started their own school in Queens, NY. And since they enrolled their own children, my mother was my first grade teacher.

Originally the school was housed in a church basement. Then for the next several years, classes were held in a Jewish Community Center. We were free to use the classrooms during the day since they did not have classes until after 3 pm, when the Jewish children arrived for a few more hours of education about their religious heritage.

I thought it unfortunate that they had to have a second school shift. Later, I understood that many other nationalities and religious groups supplement their children’s American education with lessons in their own history, values, language and traditions.

The observance of national Negro History Week was initiated in 1926 by historian and scholar, Carter G. Woodson. He selected the month of February because it included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Sixty years later, in 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-244 designating February as National Black (Afro-American) History Month.

Now our country is embroiled in a fevered national conversation around the actions of the College Board, which stripped its African American Studies Advanced Placement curricula of the scholarship of many African American writers. These intellectuals used topics including critical race theory, intersectionality, feminism, Black Lives Matter, the prison industrial complex, reparations, and the queer experience to center the African American perspective in the history of this country. The names and works of progressives including Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, Michelle Alexander, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Audre Lord and Alice Walker were removed.

This conservative backlash uses the denunciation of the aforementioned AP topics to reinforce a whitewashed version of Western Civilization.

But we know it takes more than a week or a month to encompass the many achievements and contributions of African Americans to the American story. In fact, we have incorporated an understanding of our own history as part of our lives for centuries, even when it was illegal for enslaved Africans to read and write.

I once heard the late noted historian, John Henrik Clarke, praise the education his teachers delivered in his segregated school, which lifted up the works of African American writers, inventors and scholars, and set him on his path to become a brilliant teacher/activist.

The scores of independent schools, after school programs, and public and private historically Black colleges and universities, are also testament to our understanding that we are responsible for learning about who we are, what we have done, and what we can and must do now as a people.

As my good friend Paul Coates, founder of Black Classic Press (re)publishing company says, Du4Self.

With this in mind, I am offering just some of the books and authors who have strengthened my sense of self-determination, appreciation for the richness of my culture, and my understanding of my authentic place in the world.

World’s Great Men of Color, by Joel Augustus Rogers; The Moors in Spain, by Stanley Lane-Poole; Two Thousand Seasons, by Ayi Kwei Armah; The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson; The African Origin of Civilization, by Cheikh Anta Diop; Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire; Soledad Brother, by George Jackson; Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston; The Heart of a Woman, by Maya Angelou; The Big Sea, by Langston Hughes; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; They Came Before Columbus, by Ivan Van Sertima; Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor; So Long a Letter, by Mariame Ba.


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