Editor’s note: This is the last of a three-part series.
While the intent of Black History Month is to celebrate achievements by African Americans and recognize their roles in shaping the course of the United States, Tony Norman isn’t a fan.
“If you have February designated as the time that you will deign to educate Black children and white children about African-American history, you’ve failed,” the award-winning journalist said. “You really should have an integration, a full accounting of American history, which is fascinating.”
He spoke candidly about his views on certain aspects of education as a panelist in the recent program “Racism – In My Neighborhood?” Presented virtually by the Mt. Lebanon-based Denis Theatre Foundation as part of its ongoing effort to promote conversation within the community, the 90-minute program featured insight from Norman and fellow panelists Stephanie Edmond-Myers, Elaine Frantz and Chris Ivey, along with moderator Jon Delano.
In Norman’s opinion, the elements that make the United States’ story interesting aren’t exactly the ones that are imparted to students.
“They get a completely sanitized, propagandistic version of American history that is now boring, and it makes for uncivil citizens,” he said. “They may be law-abiding, but they’re not civil. They don’t really understand or integrate well with people who are not white, and that’s the system that we currently have.”
Edmond-Myers, who lives in Mt. Lebanon, said some local English teachers have been implementing broader lesson plans.
“They are trying to integrate the literature, getting more women authors, more authors of color,” she said, noting a specific reading assignment of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” by Ibram X. Kendi.
“There have been some individual efforts to start integrating these types of anti-racist teachings in the whole of American history into the curriculum,” Edmond-Myers continued. “But systematically, it hasn’t been done. And we’re hoping – like, say, in the next five years or so – that we can come back and have a really different conversation about how our school system is teaching American history.”
In the meantime, Mt. Lebanon School District has made strides toward a more inclusive administrative team, last year hiring Tenecia Ross as director of human resources and Jocelyn Artinger as principal of Markham Elementary School.
“Things are changing,” Edmond-Myers said, “but there is more to be done.”
Another educational avenue suggested by the panelists is within religious institutions
“A lot of churches in the South Hills, in the suburbs, have really gotten interested in dealing with and addressing these issues,” said Frantz, another Mt. Lebanon resident. “I think that churches are a place where you strive to think about how to be a good person. And a Christian message, taken authentically, would lead to anti-racism.
“That doesn’t mean all churches go in that direction,” she acknowledged, “because they don’t.”
Norman expressed optimism about those that do.
“As a Christian, I am very impressed by churches that understand that they need to make an extra effort, especially if they’re all white,” he said, “because that is, quite frankly, an indication of the spiritual health of the community.”
For his part, Ivey has developed a strong educational tool with “East of Liberty,” his film that chronicles the gentrification of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, starting with his being hired in 2005 to document a publicity stunt in connection with the demolition of a local apartment complex.
“At the same time I interviewed some of the residents who lived in the high rises and they weren’t happy at all because of the spectacle that was before them,” he said on the “East of Liberty” website. “Even though in many ways it wasn’t the best place to live, it was all they had, and to see strangers having fun by shooting paintballs at the block left them furious.”
The project drew national attention as the subject of an NPR feature and serves as a teaching tool for courses in subjects such as urban studies, public policy, race, ethnicity and sociology.
But despite such efforts in the name of education, a large segment of the population continues to receive less-than-desired treatment. Edmond-Myers spoke about parents in her community who have taken the matter up with school officials.
“Their children have experienced repeated racial bullying, and what was found was there was no real mechanism for redress for racial bullying,” she said. “It was sort of dismissed as, ‘kids will be kids,’ as regular bullying. And that’s just not enough.”
The situation is being rectified, she said, and she is hopeful of significant progress.
“It really means listening to people of color and to Black people, and actually learning from them,” she said, adding that includes recognizing problems they face from a systemic standpoint.
“Just because you haven’t experienced it,” she added, “doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”