Reflections on MLK, Jr. Day

Part way through my history teaching career at the St. Andrew’s School in Delaware I had the fortunate opportunity to co-teach an interdisciplinary American Studies course with the Head of the English Department, John Austin, who is now the Head of School at King’s Academy in Jordan. John was and is a brilliant and fascinating educator and I learned a great deal through our collaboration. As we worked together we quickly realized that a significant part of the narrative about the United States we were constructing (or deconstructing) centered around our country’s race relations. The concept of race and race relations in America dominated our discussions and became part of a larger conversation about power, hegemony, assimilation and access. I find it ironic that one of the most important and influential narratives in our nation, a narrative that is fascinating to teach and discuss in class, is potentially the most difficult to talk about outside of a classroom setting.

When issues of race bubble up in our schools I often feel paralyzed when considering the appropriate response. An example of a situation might involve a white student asking an adult why a black student can use a racial epithet while if a white student used one they would be in big trouble. As a history teacher I fall back on curriculum and take the long view. The real answer to that question would take me a year to answer, I might tell myself. The challenge is that we must be present and accountable when these types of opportunities to educate arise. I find that students want to have deep conversations about race, they want to feel safe asking questions, and adults must be prepared for having a dialogue around these questions. We cannot simply hide behind our books and curriculum, we must find a way to engage with students in a meaningful dialogue.

Yesterday while listening to a group of students read a letter from Coretta Scott King on the Meaning of MLK, Jr. Day I was struck by the indelible image of an individual making the ultimate sacrifice to advance the cause of racial justice and human rights. As a teacher I sometimes looked down on holidays and months dedicated to learning about various movements and individuals. For me, important historical topics must be studied rigorously and year round, not on a given day or during a certain month. For these students, however, this moment and that day were important. And because of their presence and power, the moment became important to me and everyone else in the room. As I was sitting there I thought about all the work that needs to be done in our schools and in our country to become a truly antiracist and multicultural society, a society where all people are judged by the “content of their character” rather than by any external appearances or identifications.

So what can communities like ours do? Today I met with our Inclusion and Diversity Working Group and was energized by their ideas. Keep bringing in professional facilitators to lead us in discussions about creating inclusive communities as we did last week with Dr. Mary Gannon, they told me. But, do not shy away from having difficult and empowering discussions as a faculty so we can prepare to have similar discussions with our students, they urged. There was an argument for a “grass roots” approach that put the onus on us to work through the challenges and opportunities we see within our own community. As part of that process we need to look closely at our own individual and structural biases. Our hope is that our students truly celebrate and take pride in the diversity we are so fortunate to have in our school, that every student feels safe and empowered on our campus, and that the narrative of race in America can be discussed both in and out of the classroom. We have much to learn in this area and I am buoyed and inspired to continue this important work.

I want to conclude this blog with a few words from Ms. King’s letter.

“[Martin Luther King Jr. Day] is a day of interracial and intercultural cooperation and sharing. No other day of the year brings so many peoples from different cultural backgrounds together in such a vibrant spirit of brother and sisterhood. Whether you are African-American, Hispanic or Native American, whether you are Caucasian or Asian-American, you are part of the great dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. had for America. This is not a black holiday; it’s a peoples’ holiday. And it is the young people of all races and religions who hold the keys to the fulfillment of his dream.”