This Year, Try Centering Blackness

Centering diverse cultures can strengthen community and sense of belonging for everyone, writes Morningside Center staff developer Nicole Lavonne Smith


"It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.” – Audre Lorde

The 2020-21 school year opens at a moment when many teachers are acutely aware of the need to listen to, support, and encourage our Black, Indigenous and People of Color students – and work to ensure that BIPOC lives, viewpoints, history, and culture are reflected in what and how we teach.

One powerful way to do this is to center Blackness. After 400 years of centering whiteness and marginalizing, ignoring, or demonizing Blackness in our schools and other institutions, de-centering whiteness can be an act of resistance against systemic oppression and injustice, and a tool for healing and liberation. Centering diverse cultures can strengthen community and sense of belonging for everyone.

Our intentions as educators may be the best, but as Stephanie P. Jones notes in Ending Curriculum Violence, “Intentionality is not a prerequisite for harmful teaching.” Harmful teaching is “not a type of violence involving physical harm, but rather a type of emotional destruction legitimized as teaching…educational reparations is repair[ing] the harm that we have done to children by reconstructing curricula that have failed them.”

As we begin the school year, we as educators need to reflect on how our students experience our curricula:  Do students see themselves reflected in it? Are their stories, or stories similar to theirs, being told? Who is telling them? What parts of those stories are being told?

As blogger and Chicago teacher Ashley McCall notes:  “When we structure students’ learning around their lived experiences and present needs, they not only develop content knowledge and skills, but they grow to care about and for one another….What if we remembered that reading, writing, social studies, mathematics, and science are built into our understanding of and response to events every day?”

We can build trust while creating affirmative spaces for our students in our (virtual or in-person) classrooms through strategies including:

  • Share of yourself
  • Engage with students and their families; learn about norms interacting between home and school
  • Use restorative practices - like circling up and conferencing – for community and relationship-building
  • Use culturally relevant and responsive curricula
  • Incorporate storytelling in a way that gives space to the voice and experiences of students
  • Make space for culturally relevant moments and movements

When we’re planning our work with students, Cultivating Genius author Gholdy Muhammad suggests, we can ask ourselves: “Will this animate my students’ souls and enable joy? …When you create a space for genius, genius will show up.”

One way we can “animate souls and enable joy” is through music. Consider inviting your students to share one song that speaks to them culturally. Then assemble a playlist of their responses.

You might try the same with your adult colleagues, as a way to bring them joy as well. In a recent AFT Share My Lesson webinar, we asked participants to share songs that spoke to them. We came up with this playlist. I hope it might bring you a bit of joy!

“We all should know that diversity

makes for a rich tapestry,

and we must understand that

all the threads of that tapestry

are equal in value

no matter their color.”

 –  Maya Angelou