How do we take responsibility for ignorance?

Shasa Sartin, Features Editor

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Leading up to February, I spent time brainstorming story ideas for the Features section as well as editorials I could write in order to celebrate this time. Right away I knew I wanted to include black alumni profiles, easy! I also thought that this is the perfect time to write an editorial calling attention to taking classes in the Africana Studies department as a means of ridding ignorance in regards to black history. And then I paused. I wondered to what degree it is appropriate to call students out for an ignorance that they were wrongfully gifted.

I have always struggled with this idea of responsibility. My mother is an attorney who graduated with a history major with a focus in African-American history. My grandmother has worked in several non-profits focused on Native American life in the Twin Cities and has a bachelor’s and a master’s in English writing. All of the adults in my family have a graduate-level degree of some sort and have made it their mission to learn about a variety of human experiences. This is normal to me.

The importance placed on education was, naturally, passed down to me. For my entire childhood, school did not end when I got home. A new session began with Ms. Sartin. I learned much of the African and African-American history I know from her with the help of a giant black encyclopedia called “Africana.” My mom knew the Minneapolis Public School system would fail to teach me about that part of my heritage, so she took it upon herself to do so.

If I could gather the Luther students who grew up in the U.S. and ask them to raise their hand if their parents taught them black history after school and on the weekends, I would guess that there would be only a few hands. Probably the hands of other black students and maybe students of other racial identities who have teachers or professors as parents. What is normal to me is not normal to many of my peers at Luther. I struggle with that. I grew up learning about Mae Jemison, the first black woman to go to space. I grew up learning about Madame C.J. Walker, the black woman who invented the hot comb and was the first American woman to be a self-made millionaire. I grew up learning that black history is important. From my mother’s perspective, it was non-negotiable. She couldn’t afford to not teach me about black history because my perception of myself would suffer greatly as I grew older if she did not.

White people do not have as much to lose. Not learning about Garrett Morgan, the black man who invented the stoplight, is not going to hinder a white boy from pursuing his dream to become an engineer. Not learning about Nichelle Nichols, one of the first black women actors to portray a non-servant character on American television in Star Trek, is not going to hinder a white girl from participating in elementary school theatre performances. Not learning about Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther and awardee of the highest budget ever given to a black director, is not going to stop a white child from dreaming to direct their own movie one day.

I cannot say the same for black children. Learning about these figures among many others is an integral part of believing in oneself in a country that degrades you incessantly. I wish the motivation was as high for people outside of black America, but it is not. So I feel empathy mixed in with my frustration for my white peers who do not care to celebrate Black History Month by reading Twitter threads about black queer icons or black women in the civil rights movement who are not Coretta Scott King.

If I were to ask how many of you have discussed the importance of diversifying curriculum to not be exclusively a white narrative in the public schools, I know that many hands would fly up. This has been an ongoing conversation for educators and non-educators alike for most of my life. If society is so aware of the omission of this part of history, why isn’t change happening? I do not understand and I do not know who or what to blame. But I do know if you have not felt motivated to take responsibility for ignorance before, take this editorial as a sign to do so. Happy Black History Month.

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