Obama brings Black History Month to life
Tonea Melvin, 13, an eighth grader at The Childrens Storefront school in Harlem, teacher Candace Cardwell, and Michael Williams, Assistant Head of School at the Children's Storefront, Friday, February 13, 2009. (Photos by Kristy May)
Black History Month has leaped from the pages of textbooks into the lives of New York City students, making this years celebration perhaps the most meaningful ever while raising questions about the commemorations future.
The rise of Barack Obama, the nations first African-American president, posed unique opportunities for educators this February. The significance of the commemoration this year was not lost on students witnessing history, and changed the way many see their course work -- and their own futures.
I didn't really understand the purpose of Black History Month and why we had to do it, said Rashaan Stembridge, 10, an African-American fifth grader at Corpus Christi School in Morningside Heights. I think I understand it more than I did before. I think I'm really part of it.
When Obama's election entered the annals of black history, teachers used the milestone to show how far African Americans have come. Many students chose him as the topic of their research papers and class speeches, writing about how Obama has influenced them.I think there's an excitement, said Suzie Schugt, a kindergarten teacher at Corpus Christi School. I think it's more real for them -- they can see it. Before it was something they read in a book.
The election also taught many students a lesson that transcends the classroom.
I can see there is no excuse. If you want to be a lawyer and writer, you can do it, said Tonea Melvin, 13, an African-American eighth grader at The Children's Storefront school in Harlem. I think there's going to be a lot more to come, especially with African Americans or any other minority.
Educators there said they celebrated the election and inauguration but kept the emphasis of their Black History Month lesson plans and activities on African-American literature.
We feel the best way to honor him is to carry on what we are doing, said Michael Williams, assistant head of school at The Children's Storefront. We didn't feel the need to change our formula. We think it was what he would want us to do history has clearly influenced him and his career goals.
Some teachers wonder about Black History Months future. Williams and other educators at The Children's Storefront hope that other months honoring communities, such as Hispanic Heritage Month and Women's History Month, will gain as much recognition as Black History Month now that an African American has reached the ultimate milestone.
I've begun to question the legitimacy of Black History Month, said Candace Cardwell, a sixth-grade teacher at The Children's Storefront. I feel it should be integrated and not segregated to a month. I feel that it's kind of hard to justify having Black History Month when you have a black president.
Others disagree, saying Obama's presidency is an important step, but there is much more to accomplish and celebrate.
It's not a final point, said Michel Joseph, a Corpus Christi school seventh-grade teacher. It's just a comma in the life of the world. It will go beyond the four years.
Sixth graders Kevin Moncrief, left, and Donoven Adams, right, rehearsing for a Black History Month performance at The Children's Storefront, Friday, February 13.