When I was a little boy, I remember sitting in a small theater with my family where we watched the 1977 release of the first Star Wars movie.
It was a pivotal moment. The visual effects and music were like nothing I had ever seen or heard. The characters were funny and endearing. Afterwards, I pretended to be Luke Skywalker with my friends who used tree limbs or broom sticks for light sabers.
I was eight years old at the time. Although the movie became iconic in its stamp on American cinema, I did not realize until much later that something was missing.
A few weeks ago, my 15-year-old son, Jack watched the movie with me via Disney Plus. When it ended, what was missing dawned on me, and I asked him, “I’m curious. Did you notice how many characters in that movie were black?”
He thought about it for a moment.
“Well, I don’t know what color all the aliens and droids were, but all the main characters – including the Empire and Resistance actors – they were white.”
I can guarantee that question never crossed my mind when I was eight years old, but I would bet it came across the mind of lots of African American girls and boys in 1977.
White School Leaders During Black History Month
This month marks the beginning of Black History Month. During the protests and marches that spread across our nation and the world, I was challenged, like many other educators to reexamine my own understanding of racism. Frankly, I made a lot of promises to myself to go deeper, to learn more about my neighbors and to find better ways for educators to meet the needs of all members in their school communities.
Keeping this promise has meant reading new (and old) books, having difficult conversations, and learning to look at life from the perspective of others – including re-examining some of my favorite old movies.
A Discussion on Race with Jen Schwanke
Recently, I sat down with Jen Schwanke, Principal of Dublin Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio, for this week’s podcast episode. We talked about the momentous summer of 2020. We talked about our struggle as white educators to become better listeners. And we discussed several ways education leaders can keep their promises about anti-racism.
Here are some of the takeaways from the episode:
Increase Your Reading
Over the summer, Jen and I read or reviewed several books we would recommend for other educators, including:
- Open Wide The Freedom Gates: A Memoir by Dorothy Height
- Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You by Sonja Cherry-Paul (Adapter), Jason Reynolds (Author), Ibram X. Kendi (Author), Rachelle Baker (Illustrator)
- Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
- Getting Around Brown: Desegregation, Development, and the Columbus Public Schools (Urban Life and Urban Landscape) by Gregory S. Jacobs
- The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism Paperback by Jemar Tisby
- Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, 2nd Edition with an Update a Decade by Annette Lareau
This summer Jen enrolled in a class at a local university on equity and social justice. Reading books and talking about racism in her own town in Ohio have brought those lessons closer to home. My family and I have participated in tours of North Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the Tulsa Race Massacres took place during May 31, 1921.
At Jen’s school, teachers have established an Equity and Inclusion Committee at the building level. They provide resources for learning and encourage an atmosphere where others can discuss what they are learning and raise awareness.
Think about how you can unpack the stories of racism where you live and ask others for their stories. As you attend school board meetings or city council meetings, listen and observe how your own community is responding to the needs of minority or marginalized community members.
Take Advantage of Current Events
- February is Black History Month. This important celebration recognizes African Americans and their central role in U.S. history.
- Talk about the struggle of meaningfully honoring Black History Month – moments in history that should be celebrated year-round, but ones that still deserve special recognition in February. In addition, think about the responsibility education leaders share in ensuring accurate history is a part of our shared history.
- Black History month should not just include notable figures like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr, although each is very important. We should also highlight contemporary heroes. With the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, for instance, we must allow our students to recognize the historic moment – a moment where millions of our students are seeing themselves for the first time in the person elected to one of the highest offices in the land.
- A quick search History.com will show you that “the event grew out of ‘Negro History Week,’ the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating Black history…Every year there is a specific theme. The Black History Month 2021 theme, ‘Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity’ explores the African diaspora (the dispersion of any people from their original homeland), and the spread of Black families across the United States.”
Let’s Wrap This Up
My son and I have continued watching the Star Wars movies together. Recently, we finished the Empire Strikes Back, originally released in 1980. I won’t make you guess how many African American actors we saw. I’ll just say: Billy Dee Williams. Remember him? Lando Calrissian. Just him.
Not surprisingly, we have come a long way in the past decades of representing the diversity of our nation in media productions. But not surprisingly, we still have a long way to go in keeping the promises we have all made to do better.
Now It’s Your Turn
What promises did you make this summer about better understanding racism and its influence in your school community? In what ways are you creating a safe environment for students to talk about issues that most concern them? What other books or resources would you recommend during Black History Month? Listen to the entire podcast episode for more takeaways.