The Beautiful Struggle: Students, Staff, and Leaders Share Insights on Being Black

By Nola Lee

Quotes edited and arranged for clarity  
This past Black History Month students, staff, and teachers at Leman have found their own unique ways to celebrate and define Black History Month. From cookouts to guest speakers to posters this community made tradition their own.
Mr. Figaro - Band teacher, 10 years at Leman
What does BHM mean to you?
I see it as a celebration of the history of just general activities across time, not just necessarily American, but also from the continent of Africa and different Black peoples coming from Europe and other parts even Melaisa, what they have contributed in their history and the celebration of their cultures and identities.”
How are you celebrating BHM in your class?
“During Black History Month, I always play some type of video to celebrate what I do as I always have to start with a little bit of negative because it's like there is a lot in American history that has negativity around Blackness and how Black people were treated….  it's more important to show the successes through the arts and the music and you know, the culture, the culture and also the achievements despite all of the negativity”
Why is it important for Black and non-Black students to learn and appreciate Black history, especially during this month?
“When you bring all of your intelligence to the table, it creates a new world. We wouldn't have open heart surgery if it weren’t for a Black doctor…. think of Latimer and the creation of the filament in the light bulb… even peanut butter! ... understanding that that contribution has changed the world, we don't want to forget that …”
Figaro called for the inclusion of more open conversations
“We had a book day…. one of the books we read was talking about gentrification… The conversations that came out of it like one Black family like my Black father is gentrifying a neighborhood… Then you hear the white students saying things like, I live in a gentrified neighborhood and I don't know what to do.. we just had this huge conversation, it was great. There was no anger. Some kids learn things that were offensive that they didn't realize were offensive and we just had a good conversation….”
Ms. Pierre - Dean of Students, 13 years at Leman
What does BHM mean to you?
“I'm at a stage where I love that we get a month to be seen and to be celebrated, but… I'm very much Black every day so Black history is every day and that's my attitude. And that's how I walk within the space… I celebrate myself daily. I celebrate with my friends around me daily. I celebrate the students around me daily…”
“So for me, I actively try to engage with all things Black. So, for [Black History] month, I'm excited that it gives more attention to it [Black History]. But being Black in my years, I've also just adapted for more than a month… We actively celebrate Blackness, Black movies coming out, etc.  Let's go ahead… that's why to me, a month is great, but how do we keep moving forward and making it a big deal since one month has been around so long, but it's Black every day [for me].”
How do you navigate being one of the few Black staff at Leman?
“I feel like it's a mix between a beautiful thing but also a difficult thing…  I really love the environment… It feels very welcoming… So I don't feel too much like, oh, you're the only Black one here, versus I feel supported by my peers and things like that making it possible for me to be in this space with the kids.”
What has the school been doing to promote the celebration of BHM?
““I think we've done a great job of listening to students and what they want and need…. I think we started with the food menu for lunch during Black History Month… I even look around and I can see all these different flags that students can identify with, but also aside from the affinity spaces, just like within all realms, they are highly celebrated to me and they can be themselves and not feel small in this space.”
“BSU… I took an interest in just hearing their experiences of what makes them happy within the school… because you have kids from different backgrounds coming together and trying to thrive together in their Blackness.”
Aïda de Souza-Nianduillet- 12th grader at Leman, BSU president  
What is Black History Month mean to you?
“Black History Month is a time to think more about the contributions of Black people and people from the African diaspora...In School, I know that it's a time to focus on (Black) history and different historical figures from the Black diaspora. I think it's also a time to reflect on how we can make sure to include Black voices throughout the year because a lot of people from the Black community probably feel that we shouldn't just have one month. So it's also a time to figure out a way to include Black history and accomplishments throughout the year.”
So how is BSU celebrating Black History Month?
“What we want to do this year, we want to have more presence in the school, like in the wider school… We had a few speakers come in. For example, we had Justice Malala who talked to us about apartheid in the BSU. We're gonna have a speaker next week… We also played a Black History Month jeopardy game in our meeting, and there's the cookout this Thursday.”
What is the importance of young Black students and non Black students alike hearing from older Black role-models?
“I think it's really important for everyone to hear from them. A-lot of the time like throughout history, black voices haven't been heard as much, we also haven't had the same opportunities. So giving those opportunities now I think is really important. Also just like Black students to   see, they can do great things too… It's like a good way for them to get inspiration.”
What are some of the pros and cons of being a Black student at Leman?
“A pro is that there's definitely a clear community with the Black students, especially because… I think I realize this now but not all schools have a Black student union. So I think having that is definitely a pro. A con, I feel like there has been a lot of injustice at the school like with the use of the N word… we definitely want stronger enforcement of the repercussions for it.
Do you feel Leman is fostering a healthy environment for Black students?
“Having these incidents and feeling like we're not heard or that things aren't being done, has been, I guess, unhealthy for Black students. But, you know, meeting with the administration, and learning that they have been doing things is more reassuring, but we still feel that it needs to be strengthened and that the whole community is more of a push towards…”
“You know, things can't… be set out in the open but then it gives the community the impression that nothing is being done, and that's something that we think the school needs to work on.”
Activism is of course a large part of Black History especially in America. Recently Black Student Union has organized a silent protest. Can you tell me a bit more?
“I would say that organizing the protest was really powerful because it was something that everyone collectively cared about in the Black Student Union… It was great to see people really passionate and organizing in such a small amount of time organizing, okay, I'll do the posters. I'll do this. What are we going to say? So that was really nice. And I also think it's important that we had it because it really brought attention to the issue… Just like doing something so dramatic, I think was a good step towards just making sure that everyone knew what was going on and then getting the administration to talk to us”
“I was kind of nervous a little bit because I was like, Wait, what if people just don't come or like I didn't know how it would go… during my speech, I don't know. I kind of have a nervousness in the back of my mind”
Isis Brown (MS BSU president) and Skyler Thompson (MS BSU vice president)
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Isis - “So to me, Black History means a month where black culture and achievements can finally be celebrated and acknowledged because in America it's not nearly as talked about as it should be throughout the entire year. So it's really important to me.”
Skyler - “Black History Month is a month established in America. This month has evolved to become a complex time every February where people a part of the African American community get a chance to be celebrated, learn about and are free to embrace who they are and their heritage as a whole.”
What is the MS Black Student Union doing to celebrate Black History Month?
Isis - “MS BSU made a series of videos with each student talking about a different black historical figure who helped to shape our world today… try to have discussions generally.”
Skyler - “I believe BSU creates a safe space for those part of the black diaspora and allows people including myself to express our beliefs and opinions and get feedback for our thoughts. BSU not only has discussions about things regarding African Americans but also other infinity groups and ways that we can pitch in to help all who need it.”