Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Use black history to empower

February 13, 2007
It's great that there's at least one month when black history is celebrated in our schools, communities and even on television.
But one African-American educator, Carmen N'Namdi, offers this cautionary note: What children are learning during Black History Month may actually be the opposite of what we think we're teaching.
Words for the wise
"What if I said that George Washington was the first white president?" said N'Namdi, who's been an educator for 28 years.
First, she said, it would imply that it was a rare white person who could qualify to be president. And second, it would imply that most presidents are black.
"Language has the power to make you a victim," said N'Namdi. "Especially during Black History Month, when we focus upon all the 'first' and 'only' African Americans who broke color barriers."
N'Namdi has been teaching what she calls the "psychology of the norm" to her students at her own charter school, Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit. Named after her daughter who passed away at 14 months, the school was founded in 1978 to form a "normalized" learning environment for children of African ancestry.
According to N'Namdi, African Americans are the only people who refer to their own ancestors simply as "the slaves."
"They were more than an enslaved people; they were herbalists, artists and craftsmen," she said. "By defining black history as the history of slavery, we're losing sight of the fact that they were people with rich lives and customs."
She also warns about the pitfalls of teaching about racism to young children.
"Little ones are into superheroes," she said. "They like power, and they like to know that things can be fixed. So if you talk about the Jim Crow laws in the South, they want to know who had so much power that they could boss around their parents and grandparents?"
Instead, stories like the Rosa Parks story should be couched in terms of justice, not race, she said.
"Unless the man who asked for Parks' seat was older or carrying a child, he had no reason to ask her to get up," she said. "Then we talk about what she did to address the injustice -- she boycotted. That engages their creativity: 'How do I fix things that are wrong?' "
Liberating language
I agree with N'Namdi, who taught both of my children in elementary school. At 8, my son was at an indoor park when he and his classmates -- all African American -- were refused service by a white sales clerk. The children were outraged and demanded service. When I asked him why he thought he was snubbed, my son answered: "Because she was rude."
I'd perceived a racial incident. How much more liberating for my son to perceive rudeness detached from his own skin color.
"Seeing yourself as the norm can make a difference in whether you can transcend racism," N'Namdi said. "It's empowering."
That may be the best history lesson of all.
Contact DESIREE COOPER at or 313-222-6625.

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