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How I Celebrate Black History Month as a White Mother to Four Black Children

Image Source: Rachel Garlinghouse
Image Source: Rachel Garlinghouse

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.

Those were the only two black history figures I recall learning about during my first 13 years of schooling. In fact, it wasn’t until my junior year in college that I took a black literature course and was introduced to other noteworthy names like Toni Morrison, August Wilson, and Alice Walker. It was also in that class that I sat — for the first time ever — surrounded almost entirely by black peers; and listened to them debate whether “black” or “African American” was a more appropriate term to use, and why.

My interest in black history steadily grew after that, largely driven by my college experience. But for years, it was just that: an interest.

All of that changed abruptly in 2008. Four days after Barack Obama was elected our 44th commander-in-chief — and our first black president — my first child was born: a black girl. Over the next eight years, my husband and I, who are both white, would go on to adopt three more children, all of whom are black.

Within days of becoming parents, we were immersed in a new reality: That being a multi-racial family in America meant facing continuous challenges.

Despite what we’d like to think, racism was far from eradicated when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863; or when Brown vs. the Board of Education was passed in 1954; or even when we elected of our first black president in 2008.

And believe me, I’ve been reminded of this over and over again throughout the years.

Like the time my 2-year-old son was called a “cute little thug” by someone we knew, just a few months after the protests in our neighboring town of Ferguson, Missouri. Or when a young white man drove past our home and screamed the N-word at my daughters who were riding bikes in the driveway.

Racism is alive and well, and it is still hurting families like mine all the time.

For eight years, I taught composition at a local college, and I can’t tell you how many times I was surprised by how little my students knew about our country’s history — and especially black history. Even my African-American students were aware of little else beyond Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Rosa Parks’ defiance on that Montgomery, Alabama bus so many years ago. Just as I had been at their age.

I assumed education had improved by the time they came around; that black history was more relevant and important than ever before, and that our nation was more progressive. But I was wrong.

My experiences, both in the classroom and at home, solidified my desire and commitment to teach my kids all I could about black history. I didn’t want my children growing up with an ignorant disregard for the sacrifices and successes of their people. Without the brave pioneers of the past, a family like ours might not even be possible today.

It was the brilliant minds and determined spirits — like Madam C.J. Walker and Garrett Morgan, Shirley Chisholm and Ruby Bridges, Dr. Mae Jemison and Sidney Poitier, Magic Johnson and Oprah Winfrey — who taught others that being black and brilliant, black and talented, black and innovative, can to hand-in-hand.

Their victories should never be forgotten, diminished, silenced, or worse, unrecognized. Every February, Black History Month gives us the opportunity to learn, remember, and celebrate. But in my home, we don’t stop when the calendar page turns to March. We keep going.

In our home, we celebrate and remember Juneteenth.

Our Christmas tree is covered in black Santa, black nativity, and black angel ornaments.

Artwork created by black artists and featuring brown-skinned people hangs on our walls.

Our playlists are full of talented voices from the past and present including Ella Fitzgerald, Darius Rucker, Beyonce, Jamie Grace, and Nat King Cole.

Our shelves nearly bow under the weight of books telling the incredible stories of people such as Henry “Box” Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Misty Copeland.

On YouTube, we watch Marian Anderson sing in front of Lincoln Memorial and Dr. King preach messages of justice and peace.

I took my oldest child to see Hidden Figures, and the week before we streamed An American Girl Story — Melody 1963: Love Has to Win.

What I’ve learned over the course my parenting journey so far is that black history is American history. Every parent has the responsibility of teaching their children to understand, accept, and embrace the realities of the past and present, year-round, so that we can unite for a better future. As the words of Dr. King still eloquently remind us, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

And I, for one, do not want silence to prevail.

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