One would think that as a teenager I would be ecstatic for Black History Month. Who wouldn’t love to gush about all the overlooked accomplishments of your race during the shortest and coldest month of the year? It was the only month in which a rapper or athlete was not the most successful black person spoken about in class. It was also the only month in which our school was hesitant to serve fried chicken at events.
Every February, digitized cardboard portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman created a pop-up museum throughout the hallways. It was as if there was a Black History Month storage closet in the far-left wing of the basement, its contents dusted off after winter break in preparation for its 28-day center stage feature.
Unfortunately, as the token black kid in every honors history class, I also had a 28-day center stage feature, as a tenured black history professor. During Black History Month, every token black kid became a visiting professor in class, despite rarely being called on the other eight months of the school year.
It was as if my non-black peers assumed that every black toddler had graduated from Rev. Al Sharpton Academy, in which they received the secret bible of blackness, illustrating our history at our black confirmation prior to integrating with the masses in kindergarten. Never mind that I had known a majority of my classmates since kindergarten and had learned just as much black history every February as they had. Never mind that our elderly professor had probably walked side by side with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement; my skin color somehow warranted me to speak intelligently on black history, even though I not only didn’t live through it but hadn’t even done the reading.
During the month of February, I could honestly introduce any statement with, “Speaking as someone whose ancestors were slaves” and the teacher and students would nod their head as if I had written a thesis on everything dealing with blackness.
Even if the white boy next to me had read every James Baldwin book and could recite W.E.B. Dubois quotes as well as I could recite Brittney Spears lyrics, because he was white and I was black, everything I said pertaining to black history had more merit.
While I recognized that being black provided me with an experience unique from my non-black peers, I did not understand how my present-day experiences as a black girl made me knowledgeable of all black experiences decades and even centuries before me. Was every kid with the last name O’Malley expected to know everything about the Irish potato famine? No. It seemed crazy to expect my white peers to be historians of European history or even American history for that matter.
Black History Month also reignited the oldest of old-school rivalries in the classroom: race. The simplistic mindset of our teenage years led us to view the complex storyline of race in America as good vs. evil, victim vs. villain, black vs. white. Black History Month essentially served as the ultimate Debbie downer of the American History curriculum.
America’s holier-than-thou complex during the World War II segment in class was smeared by the images of black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze, as white guilt settled into the hearts of my white peers. It was as if every white student was somehow related to the police officer who shattered the rib cages of peaceful protesters with a water hose. Or as if the German Shepard that mauled the defenseless black girl seeking to enforce her equal rights was actually their family pet.
The conclusion of every Keep Your Eyes on the Prize documentary segment was awkwardly accompanied with “oops, I’m sorry” eyes when the classroom lights were turned back on. Black History Month was ultimately an awkward time for a group of awkward teens desperately trying to navigate various identities, especially race. Taking ownership for oppression was understandably challenging for my white peers who knew little about their white privilege and their standing in a racial hierarchy they had no control over.
Let’s face it, systemic racism is a lot to take in as a teenager.
Michelle Mbekeani, 27, is a lifetime resident of Oak Park. She is an attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. She is the mother of an energetic and loving 2 year old boy. Michelle enjoys singing and volunteering thoughout the community, supporting Oak Park public schools, and the Oak Park Festival Theatre.