This month is Black History Month, and every year it seems more of a challenge to do something that my students have not already done to celebrate the month.
This year I decided to create a playlist on Spotify honoring notable African American singers and songwriters. The list had everyone from Beyonce to Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix to Otis Redding. My students reactions were varied, but I included one track that got their attention.
I happened upon the audio from Martin Luther King Jr’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, so I added it to the playlist. When it started playing, you could have heard a pindrop in my classroom. It was less than three minutes long, and afterwards I asked if anyone had a question or comment. Hands shot up across the room, and one student who I called on asked a good one:
“What did he mean when he said, ‘no lie can live forever?'”
“Well what do you think he meant?” I responded.
Other students chimed in with some good but surface-level responses. Finally one young man raised his hand.
“The lie is that white people are better than black people,” he said.
“That’s what people really thought?” she asked.
Suddenly I found myself in a different type of class altogether. I knew the best way to talk to students is honestly, so I did. I gave them a 5-minute history of race relations in America from colonization to the Civil Rights Movement. They asked why slaves were black, who the KKK was/is, and if there is still racism in America today.
When they left for their next class, three students resumed their debate about whether or not Lil’ Wayne really is the best rap artist ever. I cringed, but I was proud that for about 10 minutes they were captivated by the same man whose words and message captivated their grandparents 40 years ago.