The importance of being WOKE.
Updated: Jul 5, 2019
As a young Black-British female teaching English in a predominately white Spain- I’ve found that conversations surrounding race don’t tend to come up very often. I mean, why would they? Generally people avoid discussions about things that they believe don’t necessarily concern them- for example I’m not going to start a debate about the political tension between North and South Korea because frankly a) I don’t know enough about the subject in order to start an informed dialogue about it and b) it doesn’t directly affect my day to day life therefore to me, its something that never crosses my mind.
Woke: (informal, U.S) to be alert to injustice in society, especially racism.
Being woke isn't just a colloquial, fashionable word being tossed around by millennials. It means more than that. It means that people- Black people specifically- are 'waking up' to our past- paying attention and delving deeper into our history . We are being reactive, not just passive. I want to take that a step further- I don't just want myself to be "woke"; I want to impart this information with my students. It is important, now more than ever, in a world so divisive like ours that we all WAKE UP to the injustices of what has happened, is happening and will potentially happen in the future.
However, February is Black History Month in the U.S.A- October in the U.K and my social media is saturated with information about revolutionary Black icons. I see pictures day to day of police brutality yet amongst them there are images and videos of hope-young Black families becoming Internet sensations making funny Tik Tok videos, little girls dressing up as Rosa Parks for school character day. It had me thinking- am I obligated to teach my students about this?I choose to follow those social media accounts, I choose to support small black owned business and I’ve found that with my travel Instagram there is an amazing ‘Black Travel Gang’ movement which encourages young black people like myself to go out and see the world- not letting the colour of our skin hinder us or deter us from expanding our world views.
For me the whole concept of a Black History Month is polarising- I do believe it does more good than bad but at the same time I hate the fact that Black history appears to be constricted into one month. Black History didn’t happen in one month, it was spread over a years, centuries and I don’t find it fitting to squash it all into 28 days- the shortest month of the year. I do believe personally that we should integrate black history within our curriculum- not brush over slavery for two weeks and then learn about the Tudors for 4 consecutive years. I have a lot of grievances with the British education system but mainly in how unbalanced the teaching of history is. I loved history at school and I chose to study it to A level. At my high-school we had a more varied curriculum than most but I still argue that more needs to be done- this is a whole other blog post topic completely. We need to learn about the Windrush generation, Britain’s involvement in foreign affairs, the colonisation and aftermath in India and the West Indies. What I’m saying in plainer terms is that Britain cannot champion about being a diverse and multicultural society yet predominately only teach ‘white’ history. In my opinion they have a duty to talk about this side of history, not black list it completely. How dare they colonise and destroy whole countries yet completely sugar coat the damage that they caused? Its disgraceful- they cannot claim to be progressive and open-minded society yet completely disregard facts like this and I feel like more should be done to change this- it happened throughout my parents generation and mine- it shouldn’t happen for the next.
"The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are"- Maya Angelou
Now, I go to Durham University- don’t get me wrong I really have enjoyed my experience there so far but it is by far a homogenous community and I can count on one hand how many black students there are at my college in my year- and we're one the largest and most "diverse" colleges. Now, I’m not here to slam Durham's apparent lack of diversity- like anywhere it could be improved regarding racial relations. Nonetheless, what I have learned is that people- normally white people-tend to become uncomfortable when discussing race. Now, is that white guilt or something else? They aren’t accustomed to it, it doesn’t really affect them. What is this ‘it’ I’m talking about. Racism of course. The ‘R’ word, something which I’ve had countless discussions about – a word that evokes discomfort when I talk about it to anyone. The one possibility I have to always account for if someone talks to me in a disparaging way, gives me a strange look or is downright rude to me. Something that my white peers don’t even have to consider. This post isn’t about racism first of all, this post is about me realising that I’m in a position of power and responsibility and me mobilising that power to do something good.
I’m a teaching assistant in a High School- I do a lot more work behind the scenes than I’m actually supposed to. In my job description I’m a ‘cultural ambassador’ working alongside the British Council, my job is to provide insight to “British Culture’. I’m not supposed to discipline the kids, set homework or mark it, teach classes or even be left alone with the children however for some reason I’m teaching 4 classes a week! I’m using this however as an opportunity to trail out teaching, to see whether its the right career path for me. So far I’m on the fence- anyone that says teaching is easy has definitely never worked in a classroom before. It’s one of the most rewarding yet challenging jobs that I’ve ever done- and I worked simultaneously in retail and service! Some days I get such joy from seeing the kids pick up a simple grammar point or if they appear slightly more interested in British culture- other days it feels like I’m talking to a brick wall as they look at me as if I’ve just grown a second head. But hey, swings and roundabouts.
The past couple of months, I’ve taught some pretty simple classes- my age range is between 11 and 40 (I have two vocational classes with adults training to be lab technicians-something else I didn’t sign up for but it's all good for work experience). My classes range from teaching the difference between it, its and it is (something I still have trouble with myself) and lessons on the difference between British schools and Spanish schools. I prefer my adult classes because I have free rein on what I can teach them- the past few weeks I’ve definitely been leaning on the more ‘woke’ side of classes- talking about the gender wage gap, why there is a lack of women in science, the Me Too movement. So far, they seem to have found it really quite interesting- that is until I introduced the topic of Black History Month. To be fair I flexed my teacher powers and told them ‘we’re going to be talking about black history month for the next four sessions’. Normally I would have done it in October but since I’d only just arrived and because it is such a ‘heavy’ topic I decided to wait until I got to know the kids and could gauge their english level a little more.
Now when I was at high school we had maybe one or two assemblies on black history month- the only other time we really talked about black history was always in a positive way. I remember leaving the classroom in tears in year nine after a class discussion on Emmett Till and lynching. I remember my teacher profusely apologising afterwards, telling me how sorry he was that I was upset. It wasn’t his fault; the truth hurts and history, when taught correctly, hurts harder. I remember studying slavery as part of my AS level history and Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. Yes, finally I thought something positive in Black History. It was still taught alongside the racism discrimination in the 1920s and 1930s. My God, I thought, can we not catch a break!
Now the tables have turned, I’m in a position of responsibility. I have to teach this tastefully and I don’t want to traumatise my kids because of it. For me, the purpose of Black History Month is to honour our people, the unsung heroes, give them the recognition that has long evaded them. I don’t just want to talk about the Usain Bolts, the Obamas and Oprah, I want to talk about Mary Seacole, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Olive Morris. I want them to leave my classroom feeling enlightened. But you can’t teach history without the bad- as much as the British system likes to avoid the story about how the empire came to be- the true story- I want to show both sides, the injustice and the struggles but also the gains and successes that my people have had.
I am not a dictionary. I am not an encyclopaedia. I tell this to my white friends a lot of the time. I am not your token black person who can give you the answer about everything to do with Black culture. However, I can give you my opinion, share my experiences and then it’s down to you to go and do the research, for you to go and do the work if you want to find out more. A few months ago one of my teachers asked me to do a presentation of Thanksgiving. I was confused; firstly I’m not even American and this tradition is alien to me. Nevertheless, I took it as a challenge, I did some research and I asked my friends, one from the states and one from Canada about their experiences. I wanted to make my kids ‘woke’ I didn’t want them to think that the pilgrims and the native Americans were best friends like all of the YouTube videos tailored to kids wanted me to. I wanted to give them an abridged but nonetheless true history- I wasn’t going to sugar-coat it for them. I told them about colonisation, the mass killings of the native people, what it means to invade and steal someone’s land about all of the problems that the English brought with them them; diseases and alcohol. On the other hand I also reiterated the point that Thanksgiving is an inclusive holiday, I used the information that my friend Paige, who is also half Inuit, told me. She told me how she celebrates thanksgiving too, that it isn’t a case of hating the white invader- yet it is important to tell the truth. Teaching these topics, not matter how uncomfortable they may be, they are still important.
"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance"- Confucius
As teachers, we have such a powerful role. We provide the tools for children to grow and learn. Kids are so young and impressionable- what we teach them they take as gospel. To teach a child is one thing, but to make them want to go out, put into practise what they’ve learned is another. The ultimate goal for me, is that I want my kids to be woke- or rather aware of the world around them and to look into further- to want to learn more.
I am not your token black person who can give you the answer about everything to do with Black culture.
If you want to find out more here are a good starting points:
Black British and American figures in the literary world that are worth reading
Andrea Levy- Small Island is also a book and the BBC created a mini series adaptation
Jackie Kay- a few years ago I had the pleasure of performing in a play which Jackie Kay created in collaboration with the Roay Exchange Theatre Manchester- her poetry is outstanding and I would recommend that you check it out.