Frederick Douglass and Donald Trump: Why Black History Month Isn’t Enough

Every February, K-12 schools across America scurry around making preparations for Black History Month.  Elementary school kids learn about George Washington Carver and his peanuts, middle school students read MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and high schoolers spend a half hour or so on some Maya Angelou poems in English class.  There might be a Civil Rights documentary thrown in, just to mix things up.  At the end of the month, the decorations and xeroxed copies of noble-sounding black histories are stuffed into the supply closet until next year.

I know it’s not this way at every school, but it is at a lot of them.

There are many things that baffle me about Donald Trump, but one of the main ones is that he consistently gets away with saying things that make absolutely no sense, or have absolutely no basis in truth.  Examples of this abound and it would be impossible to list them all here (although I’m sure someone has, or at least hope someone has), but to name two, I about spit my drink out when I read his comments about Frederick Douglass at a Black History event earlier this month, and I got incredibly angry when he had the audacity to be disrespectful towards John Lewis in January, before Trump even took office.

At the Black History event, he talked about Douglass in a vague yet thoroughly bizarre way where, among other things, he seemed to think Douglass is still alive.  (For the record, Douglass died in 1895.)  For the second, he attacked Lewis on twitter, calling Lewis “all talk, no action.”  It is galling to think that he would even dare to say such a thing to someone who has a long history of activism and civil service (action and activism have the same root, in case Trump isn’t aware), including marching beside MLK Jr., being physically assaulted, literally risking his life and watching as others were murdered for the same cause, and repeatedly arrested.  It’s even more galling to think of Trump,  who was handed his wealth from the time he was born, to accuse Lewis, whose parents were sharecroppers, of not taking action.

Each time, I wondered to myself: How does he get away with this?  And then I realized… he gets away with it because a lot of people really have no idea who Frederick Douglass and John Lewis are, any more than Trump does.

The way we teach black history, black contributions, black lives to our children is extremely limited and extremely whitewashed.  We don’t do it much to begin with, and we tend to present the rose-colored glasses version anyway; we exhort MLK for his peaceful methods but don’t talk about how hated he was by white people at the time, how he was spied on by the FBI, and how his peaceful methods got him killed.  We celebrate Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” poem but don’t talk about how ownership, figuratively and literally, of black women’s bodies is a dark and ongoing part of our social and political narrative.

And we tend to teach race from a white perspective.  When I was teaching 11th grade English and AP literature in North Carolina, I got pushback from parents on teaching Frederick Douglass and Toni Morrison; in both cases, the parents suggested I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn instead– in one instance, it was literally phrased to me in an email, “If you have to teach a race book, why don’t you teach Huck Finn?”  I explained that I *do* teach Huck Finn in 11th grade, in tandem with Frederick Douglass, but that it’s also important to teach books that are, you know, written by black people, not just about them. (And let’s not even touch the problematic usage of the term “race book” in the email.  The parent ended up removing their son from my class.)

The argument was that the Douglass memoir was too violent– because it is okay to portray slaves as bumbling but good-hearted fools in Huck Finn, but not to show the actual, horrible reality of slavery written by a slave himself.

The argument against Song of Solomon was that the language was too rough– because it’s okay to read the n-word 219 times in Huck Finn but 18-year-olds can’t handle reading the f-bomb a handful of times.

What I’m saying is, we have to do better.  We can’t just trot out the Harriet Tubman picture books once a year in February and read them to squirming groups of third graders during story time; we can’t just use the same texts like the “I Have A Dream” speech and Huck Finn over and over and over, until the students are so freaking bored that they want to bash their brains out, all while learning a very narrow slice of black history.  We can’t have Martin Luther King Jr. and Mark Twain (!!!) represent all black experience; we can’t just mention that the Founding Fathers owned slaves in a sidebar of a history textbook and ignore it the rest of the time while telling our own history.  America was literally built on the back of unpaid black labor; you can’t tell me that’s not important.

We need to teach black history alongside white history throughout the year, not just in 28 days.  We need to assign books, essays, and poems by black writers who talk about their own experience, not white writers who talk about the black experience for them.  We need to look at more modern black history in context and realize that MLK is not the only prominent black person from the last 100 years.

We need to educate citizens who know who Frederick Douglass is– and Phyllis Wheatley and Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer and Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis and thousands of other names worth knowing–  and can call bullshit when a president attacks a preeminent civil rights leader on twitter.

Black History Month is a starting point but it’s not enough.  It’s never been enough, and each one of us needs to do our duty as educators to work a wider view of black history into our curricula throughout the year.  As tempting as it is to say that it’s more important than ever, the truth is that it’s always been important, but now is the time to buckle down and make it happen.


Your Language App is Lying to You

Lately a targeted ad has been showing up a lot in my Facebook newsfeed: it shows a picture of a smiling woman above the headline “Three weeks to learn a language?”  It’s from Babbel, a language learning app.

Screenshot from my phone: LIES, ALL LIES

Every time I see it, I end up either wanting to laugh or throw my laptop out the window, because that claim is 100% bullshit.  Learning a new language in three weeks is impossible.  I know that.  You know that.  Babbel knows it, too.  Why they claim it’s possible, I don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong– language apps and programs like Babbel and Duolingo can definitely serve a purpose.  If someone is going on a short-term trip abroad and just needs to know the basics, like how to politely greet someone and ask for prices and directions, they can be immensely helpful.  Or, if someone is a beginning or intermediate language learner who is taking a class and just wants a way to learn/practice vocabulary, they’re good for that too.  But anyone who has put the time in to actually learn, really learn, a new language knows that’s more than just memorizing some words and phrases.

Here’s the truth: I’ve been living in Istanbul for two and a half years and my Turkish is still really rough.  I can bumble my way through most interactions by now, and I can understand or at the very least get the gist of most of what is being said, but I still make a ton of mistakes and I am a far cry away from being fluent.  (I read once that it typically takes 3-5 years of immersion to become conversationally fluent in a new language.  I’m apparently on the 5-year track.)  (And, according to the same article, it takes 7 years of immersion to become academically fluent in a new language, in case you were wondering.)

When I first moved to Turkey, I arrogantly thought that I wouldn’t have much trouble picking up the language.  After all, I was a foreign language major in college (Italian) and am typically pretty good with words, plus I would be immersed in it– how hard could it actually be?

Really freaking hard, it turns out.  Turkish is nothing like the other languages I’ve studied.  I took Spanish and Latin in middle and high school, which helped with learning Italian in college, but Turkish is so completely and totally different that, looking back, it’s hilarious that I thought I would be able to teach it to myself.  I got a couple of grammar books and I bought the Mango Languages computer program for Turkish, and for a few weeks, I really did sit down and work on the Mango program each day.

Then I stopped, because I was learning nothing from it.

For starters, it mostly taught tourist Turkish; secondly, it didn’t explain grammar at all.  It was literally just memorizing a bunch of phrases.  And when you’re living in a country, knowing how to ask “How much do the evil eye beads cost?” or “Can you show me where Hagia Sofia is on the map?” (and even that is an incredibly difficult sentence in Turkish that beginners could never hope to actually say) only gets you so far.  What I needed to learn was how to build sentences and how to adapt what I was saying/understanding depending on context and how people were responding to me.  I needed to know those things even at the very beginning, when I was just starting out.

And that is exactly what you can’t get from those programs and apps.

Instead I signed up for an intensive language course which met for three hours a day, four days a week, for six weeks.  Taking an actual course, with an actual teacher, taught me the grammar basics that I so desperately needed in order to put sentences together.  Like Finnish and Japanese, Turkish is a languages of suffixes, where you pile suffix after suffix onto the end of a word rather than splitting ideas into separate words.

Like this.

I absolutely needed someone to guide me through all of it, step by step, and yes, it involved a textbook and a lot of grammar exercises and repetition.  Even learning the basics wasn’t easy.  But it gave me the foundation I needed to absorb, learn, and adapt as I continued to be immersed in the language by living here.

Even with the language course, the first year or so of really trying to use Turkish on a daily basis was a challenge.  There were so many times when my language skills weren’t enough and I wasn’t able to do the things I needed to (like deal with the administrative staff at my former job, who spoke little to no English), or where I ended up feeling stupid and embarrassed.  It still happens sometimes– I ran into my neighbor in the hallway the other day and we exchanged pleasantries, then she asked me a question.  I understood that she was asking a question, and I understood the kind of question, but I didn’t know the main word she was using.  It was one I had never heard before.  So I couldn’t do anything but smile and say, “Anlamiyorum,” which means, “I don’t understand.”  And she smiled back and nodded and said, “Anlamiyorsun” (“You don’t understand”) and said goodbye and went into her apartment.  She was perfectly nice about it, but I wanted to shout after her, “I swear I do know some Turkish!  I promise I’m trying!”  (It turns out she was asking if we had bugs in our apartment.  I didn’t know the word for bug, since it’s not something that had ever come up class or at work or in a social situation.  Something tells me the Babbel app probably wouldn’t teach that one, either.)

Yet, even with all the frustrations and feelings of inadequacy, I know I’m getting better.  At some point along the way, I was able to start joking around with my husband in Turkish (or, as he calls it, being sassy in two languages).  There was the thrilling moment when I watched a 10-minute environmental PSA video in Turkish and was able to easily follow along.  In fall of 2015, I went to the bank to open an direct deposit account for my job and had to speak all in Turkish, and it was an unmitigated disaster; the banker and I couldn’t communicate sufficiently, she kept yelling if there was anyone who could help translate which led to about thirty people standing around and watching as I blushed deeper and deeper red and as she got more and more frustrated.  It took forever and did indeed end up requiring a translator.

However, this past fall, I went to a different bank for the same reason (direct deposit accounts are required for each job in Turkey) and was able to figure it out.  I knew I was making grammar mistakes as I was speaking, but the banker was able to understand everything I was saying, including when I explained the US tax system to her.  To me, it was a huge victory, in large part because I remembered vividly how humiliating the previous bank experience had been.  It’s times like those, when I have a measuring stick of sorts to see how far I’ve come, that make me want to continue rather than throwing in the towel.

Learning a language is a slow crawl, an uphill climb, a journey rather than a destination, a vast and ever-changing ocean that overwhelms as often as it delights (more often, usually).  And if all you need is to learn how to ask for directions to the Eiffel Tower or how to tell a waiter you want chicken for dinner, then by all means, download a language learning app.  But if you’re in it for a the long haul, gird your loins and prepare for a lot of setbacks.  It doesn’t come easy.