On the Second Front of the BlackLivesMatter Movement
By Ayo Magwood
I like to think of myself as a socially and racially conscious African-American, and as a social justice teacher. Yet I haven’t been to a single #BlackLivesMatter protest: not a single march, demonstration, or “die-in.” And this is in spite of the fact that my parents met at very similar protests during the civil rights movement fifty years ago, and despite the fact that three to four years later they marched in many of these protests accompanied by me in a stroller.
This time around, my health and family obligations conspired against me. But perhaps more importantly, my passions and efforts have been channeled into a second(ary) front line: the history classroom in a predominately white private school. And it has seemed that my time, talents, and energy would be spent more efficiently and productively in this second front line, rather than in the front lines of a physical march or demonstration.
These last months have been very emotionally challenging for me personally as it has been for many. But parallel to the personal roller coaster of emotions, I have also rode a professional roller coaster of emotions.
My position as an African-American social studies educator in a school of predominately privileged, white, high school students—the “future leaders of America”—has always given me a sense of responsibility and opportunity. The current BlackLivesMatter movement, however, or rather, the racial divide and the national undercurrent of racial ignorance that the movement has surfaced, has greatly heightened that sense of responsibility and opportunity. My passionate vocation has become an urgent mission. The professional roller coaster of emotions is a result of the heightened sense of urgency: I perceive every step of student progress as a step towards a more racially just American future. Every misstep is a lack of movement toward this goal.
Luckily, I am experiencing more successes than missteps. The news surrounding the lack of indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner surfaced as we neared the end of a 4-week thematic unit on the arc of racial injustice in U.S. history covering slavery, Jim Crow, housing discrimination in the 1950s, and the “new Jim Crow.” While most U.S. history courses in the country cover the former two topics, few cover the latter two, and so many students often mistakenly get left with the impression that racial injustice ended in 1965.
In addition, my approach to teaching history emphasizes both the impacts that history has had on the present as well as the debates and themes that weave through and connect history to the present. Since we had studied how historical issues of racial injustice impact and connect to current issues, my students were better able to understand the BlackLivesMatter charges of patterns of systematic racial injustice. That is not to say that they always agreed that America should adopt racially conscious policies to address the inequities. But unlike some of the “racially insensitive” (I’ll leave it at that) diatribes and racially charged “conversations” I have heard on social media lately, the conversations I have heard in my classroom have for the most part been respectful, historically accurate, and mostly accurately reflective of national racial realities. The hope of social justice educators like myself is that one day in the future, all Americans will be able to engage in conversations characterized by qualities such as these.
Over the last three months I have frantically emailed back-and-forth with colleagues past and present as we struggle to come to terms simultaneously with our personal emotions, our professional emotions and sense of responsibility, and our students’ emotions. We scramble to figure out ways of teaching these issues appropriate to our students’ levels of development. We exchange resources and lesson plans—including Teaching for Change’s Teaching About Ferguson recommendations and Dr. Marcia Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus–and share our experiences, successes and missteps. But in everything we do, we feel a sense of responsibility. We know that in our hands lies the opportunity to influence tomorrow’s generation, to create a very different tomorrow.
So when referring to the BlackLivesMatter movement, remember that social justice educators—of all races—are also foot soldiers on the front lines of the movement—albeit on a second front. We don’t necessarily hold signs or yell chants. But we work just as tirelessly and passionately as the protesters and organizers do to influence the attitudes and opinions of America in hopes of contributing towards the movement for a more racially just tomorrow. Hopefully in doing so, we complement the efforts of those on the “first front,” and honor the memory of the efforts of my parents and their peers in the civil rights movement forty years ago.
Ayo Magwood is an upper school history educator. She has taught for 8 years in urban charter schools and a year and a half at a private school. She lives with her husband and 5-year old son.
December 15, 2014