February 2021: From Beth Fisher-Yoshida

Dear SPS Faculty,

February is recognized as Black History Month and it is a time to focus our attention on the achievements of African Americans in U. S. history. I wondered about its origins, which also led me to think about the act of naming. When we name something it is a sign of respect and acknowledgement of its existence. It gives a sense of identity to what is being named. 

The origins of Black History Month date back to 1915, which is 50 years after the 13th Amendment and the abolishment of slavery in the U.S. and since 1976 it has been officially recognized by the Presidents of the U.S. It is a time to be more intentional in paying attention to the contributions of African Americans to all aspects of the development of the U.S. In making this recognition more explicit it causes me to reflect on what is not being recognized and why these achievements were not recognized previously?

Each year has a different theme and this year’s theme is Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity (history.com). In doing some research on the topic I noticed that the reasons this theme was selected is because the black family has been represented in many ways over the years by black families themselves and by others about them. Some of the characteristics highlighted have done justice to the sense of community, nurturing and kinship it affords, while in other instances it has been stereotyped and vilified. The black family is also diasporic and can include stretching to Africa. This stirs up other thoughts about the reasons the diaspora exists in the first place.

Reflecting on these types of initiatives, those that encourage us to pay respect and honor, reminds me of the many ways in which this carries over into other parts of life, such as in the classroom. It causes me to take a step back and think about how I name and represent what happens in class, in the subject matter I cover, the skills I aim to develop, and in the resources I use. I look for the diversity of perspectives in the readings I choose, the theorists I acknowledge, the case studies I include, and the examples I use to illustrate points.

This has been a recurring theme and a continuation of the more concentrated focus on a DEIA lens and how courses are constructed and taught. It does take an intentional level of consciousness to focus on these modifications because while it may not seem like a big deal to some it is a big deal to others. The naming of theorists in a course draws attention, even implicitly, that this is a person of note and one to recognize. It leads me to reflect on naming as connected to identify and self-esteem and whether students see themselves reflected in the syllabus and course content. If they do not then I wonder about the impact that has on them? And when we do bring into the conversation a more diverse selection of resources, are we stereotyping or engaging in open inquiry with genuine curiosity?

This will be an ongoing process and I think it is a healthy one even if uncomfortable. It is in that space of discomfort where learning can take place.

Thank you,