UPDATE: FEBRUARY 2015
While I have a fantastic family who has shaped me into the woman I am today, I am also eternally grateful to EXTRAORDINARY educators like the amazing Ms. Tracye Howard who fed my thirst for learning as a student in her 8th-grade U.S. History class. I’ve been blessed to pursue my education from kindergarten to a Masters’ degree and she STILL remains my favorite and most treasured teacher of all time because she took the time to believe in me. She made sure that every student who left her class knew who they were as an African American citizen of this country and to stand tall and proud in that. Ms. Howard, you will always be one of my favorite SHEROS. YOU.ARE.LOVED.
February 1993. I was a bubbly, 14-year-old, 8th-grader at Pimlico Middle School in Baltimore. The highlights of my life at the time were singing with my beloved JMS Choir, spending my Thursday nights watching “Martin” and the final glorious season of “A Different World,” babysitting my first niece, Karin (I’m STILL in denial that that child is now 22 years old!), and eagerly (eagerly!) waiting to hear if I would be accepted to Western High School in the fall. On top of my household chores, church duties, and babysitting, I was also on pins and needles that month completing the biggest school assignment of my life—a 10-page paper covering the lives of 30 prominent African Americans, courtesy of my all-time, favorite teacher, Ms. Tracye Howard. I remember having to physically rewrite that paper two times (!!!), but after completing that assignment my view of myself and my pride in being an African American would never be the same.
A few weeks earlier in January, we were just beginning a new unit on life after World War II in Ms. Howard’s American History class. Whatever our textbooks had to say about the Black experience during this time, Ms. Howard was definitely NOT happy with it. I’m pretty sure those antiquated textbooks from the 1980s most likely summed up the black experience as follows: We were slaves, Abraham Lincoln freed us, Martin Luther King gave a good speech, and now black people were good to go. Determined that her students would not be stunted by this limited view of the Black experience, Ms. Howard replaced all of our textbooks with a more appropriate text that gave a fuller and deeper explanation our struggles, our triumphs, and the sung and unsung leaders who shaped our history. As a blossoming history fanatic, I was hooked. Ms. Howard also supplemented this new text with intriguing films from the Civil Rights era and speeches by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and others. I remember that this was one of the first times that I had ever seen footage of black people being sprayed by hoses and chased by dogs just for simply trying to vote, stand up for equal rights in public places, or just BEING black at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Just as my classmates and I were getting more interested by this new material, Ms. Howard dropped the BOMB—at the end of February, we were all required to turn in a report on 30 prominent African Americans, 15 noted people that she selected and 15 more that we had to research on our own. We were all looking at Ms. Howard like, “Lady, do you realize we are just teenagers? How the heck do you expect us to do this project????” My 14-year-old mind was officially in panic mode.
My classmates and I spent the next few weeks spending time at the library, sharing books over lunch, and comparing notes about who we would cover in our papers. This was an INTENSE project for budding teenagers!! I remember the night before the project was due, I was up until 11:00 making sure that each word was perfect.
The next day, Ms. Howard sent out an APB to all of our other teachers that we were NOT to be finishing up her paper in their classes. If they saw us working on her paper, our projects would immediately be confiscated. Finally, fourth period rolled around and it was such a RELIEF to finally put my hard work in Ms. Howard’s hands. I was proud of myself. That pride grew into full out joy when Ms. Howard handed our projects back a few weeks later and I saw a gleaming 95% (A) at the end of my paper. That moment was truly one of the proudest moments of my entire academic career.
I’ve held onto to Ms. Howard’s history project for more than 20 years, partly because I’m an emotional pack rat and more importantly because it reminds me to never forget who I am as African American and to celebrate the gift of my heritage ever day. Each February, I still make it a practice to learn about African Americans that I’ve never heard of before, whether they are well-noted heroes or just everyday pioneers in my immediate world.
I know in recent years, scholars and lay people alike debate whether we should still set aside a separate month for black history. My answer—ABSOLUTELY YES. Just because we have an incredibly bright and capable black president and his beautiful and equally accomplished wife in the White House does not mean that we have arrived. We STILL have work to do and young minds to shape. In a day and age where today’s youth are exposed to Real Housewives, Basketball Wives, and athletes from all sports behaving badly, we need Black History Month now more than ever. We need CONSTANT reminders of where we’ve been, who were are now, and what the future can hold for us.
I nearly peed my pants when Ms. Howard found me on Facebook this summer and I am eagerly looking forward to connecting with her soon the next time I am home in Baltimore. I will be eternally grateful to her for challenging my mind, shaping my heart, and helping me to become the defiantly proud African American woman that I am today. I’m still shaping up my plans for Black History Month 2015, but whatever I do I won’t forget to remember celebrate the history and legacy that has brought me thus far.