One afternoon during our social studies block, I did a lesson on race using the characters of “Sesame Street.” I asked my 6- and 7- year-old students: What race would Big Bird, Oscar, Elmo and Cookie Monster be if they were people and why? Using tally marks, my students decided that Big Bird and Elmo would be white because they are always happy and helpful. Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster would be black because Oscar was homeless and Cookie Monster was greedy. I choked back tears as I read the results out loud and saw how the internalization of socialized depictions of the black identity polluted young, black minds.
As a first grade (the best grade) teacher on the west side of Baltimore City post Freddie Gray, I had to teach differently. Not differently in the way that Baby Boomers use to describe “new math” but differently in the sense that I had to battle the single story that was told about Baltimore City every day, more specifically black students in Baltimore City. I had to go out of my way to affirm the beauty of blackness and constantly cross the intersection of art and politics to liberate and educate students. This was not only the teaching of math and science but the normalization of black scientists and mathematicians. It meant intentionally counteracting the erasure that black innovation and intellect has been subjected to with movies and pictures. Reading books by black authors, starring black characters became the norm in our classroom. It was only first grade, but “Mother to Son” was their favorite Langston Hughes poem.
Because beyond the four walls of our classroom, police brutality was the norm, dilapidated buildings and homeless black people were the normal. But in our classroom, we had to create a new narrative, a new normal that celebrated, valued and affirmed who we are. We counteracted the single story of the black identity and told a story of Baltimore students that didn’t begin in poverty and end in jail, just as the film “Black Panther” tells a nuanced story of blackness that doesn’t begin at slavery. It destabilizes the single narrative that is perpetuated about blackness and offers a glimpse into black history that shows black children that they come from a royal and rich culture. “Black Panther” is not just a movie. It creates a new story for the black diaspora and a new lens of socialization for black students.
Affirming black children through the representation of blackness in a royal capacity, is just what our students needed. It is important now more than ever to affirm black students and validate their existence in this world, especially with a government that constantly tells them they do not belong through racist policies and discriminatory laws. Black students in Baltimore City do not have the privilege of ignoring inequitable societal structures and are very well aware of how they are stereotyped and treated by those in power.
There are countless great teachers in Baltimore City, black or not who continuously affirm their students, and “Black Panther” just made that a little bit easier. Our children have a superhero to look up to, a barrier that has been broken. For years, we’ve seen superheroes who do not look like us, quietly internalizing what that means for who we can be. In Baltimore City, the students know that schools shouldn’t be freezing or be mice- and roach- infested. However, they also know that their schools don’t look like other schools and internalize it as an unworthiness that quickly manifests itself into phrases like, “that’s just the way it is.” But it is not and it does not have to be.
We saw that change and the audacity of hope with the election of President Barack Obama; “Yes We Can” was a slogan that quickly became an affirmation for black students who dreamed of becoming president one day. In that same way, “Wakanda Forever” has become our new “Yes We Can.” President Obama shattered notions of a single narrative by being elected the first black president, and now “Black Panther” has shown our students that they can be superheroes, and that they too are kings.
May Amoyaw is a former First Grade Teacher who is currently an Economic Policy Advisor at Third Way and an all-around dope individual. Keep up with her on twitter @MayAmoyaw.