Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Black History Month

Since Obama has been president (or more relevantly, since the Disney Channel has started creating strong roles for blacks), I've polled my students each year about the state of race in America. I teach in an all-white, Jewish high school, but even though they don't interact closely with a black community, I'm always impressed that my students understand that race relations is a complex issue and that there still isn't full equality in America, despite the country's grandiose promises of liberty for all. I hope this awareness causes them to work to right that awful wrong. Following are my lessons that aim to show students the importance of America's continued struggle to end racism.

I'm going to highlight two classes where discussion of racism is a big part of the course as a whole and where specific units in the syllabi coincide perfectly with Black History Month.

Hot Topics

Hot Topics is a senior elective where, during the Fall Semester, we study medical ethics and, during the Spring semester, just in time for Black History Month, racism.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Over winter vacation, students tackled the first eight chapters of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a book that weaves together the two topics of the year. Now, students are working on the book, reading it, answering questions about different chapters and discussing how it connects with what we're doing in class. My all-white, Jewish students were surprised to discover that segregation even extended to hospitals and medical treatment.

The Evils of Racism and Stereotyping

We began Spring semester with a debate about whether natural morality exists and then asked ourselves how we could set up a just society with a compass that seemed to change with time. We then read the following articles:

What is Evil and Why Do People Tolerate It?

How to Withstand a Hurricane of Hate

Now we're studying "The Whipping" by Marita Bonner, a painful and powerful story written during the Harlem Renaissance and chronicling the racism and stereotyping blacks encountered during the Great Migration. The story will be a perfect springboard for watching the movie Crash (2005), a movie set in Los Angeles and tackling all the thorny problems of racism, including the animosity and distrust that existed between the LAPD and the black community.

Here's a New York magazine review of the film: Review of Crash. Warning: The film is rated R.

Humor about Race

I can't do anything in my classes without also trying to make the kids laugh. Since stereotyping is one main issue Crash grapples with, we watch the following funny clips that joke about racism. The first is a campy commercial by Judd Apatow:

Of course, this classic satire of stereotyping is always a hit with students (I never get tired of watching it, either!):

The Jewish Debate Over Slavery

Since I work in a Jewish day school, the students and I will also discuss the debate over slavery that occurred in the American Jewish community, a debate that seems especially relevant with the movie Lincoln in theaters and showing Oscar promise:

Jewish Views of Slavery and Secession

The Rabbi Who Seceded from the South

American Literature

The Jewish debate over slavery also fits in well in my American literature class, which of course includes a unit on racism, one we happen to be embarking on just in time for Black History Month and just in time to see Lincoln. In fact, yesterday we planned a class trip to see the film, and because the class has already watched Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible and because they're a curious and thoughtful bunch, they're really excited to see the movie.

We've begun analyzing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with its attendant discussions of the use of the 'n' word. Here's an article, with a clip, about that debate:

I also plan to give my students these film reviews of Lincoln and the other American-centered movies in the running for Oscars this year:

In preparation for the movie, we've already discussed the benefits of seeing films that remind us anew of the scourge that was slavery.

More Humor about Race

Fortunately, the super-talented and bi-racial comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele can help me out with contemporary humor about race. The comedians, whom most of the students are familiar with and love, make the students connect more closely with the issue:

Not For Sale

I always like to show my students that there are real-world applications to their learning. Here's an organization that my school's fashion show may highlight this year. Our fashion show theme this year is "Who's the Fairest of Them All?" and we want to use the show to raise awareness and funds for fair trade practices and to help end the unfair "trading" of humans, slavery. Here's an organization we're considering working with:

(To find out more about our fair trade fashion show, click here: Who's the Fairest of Them All?)

Additional Resources for Black History Month

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