The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

Breaking the Silence

In light of Black History Month, students, teachers and counselors discuss the pressures and importance of reading about Black narratives.

When she had found out her Honors English III: Imagining America class would be reading “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, Black Leadership, Awareness and Culture Club (BLACC) leader Tiffany Armour ’25 was overjoyed, having read another one of Morrison’s books over the summer and enjoyed it. Now, listening to the audiobook in class, she felt uncomfortable and tense. The book had used the N-word and ‘Negro,’ but her teacher had not addressed the background nor the significance of these words when they came up. Looking around the room, she began to feel a heightened sense of awareness of being the only Black student in her class.

Following this awareness while reading books about the African American experience in her English class, Armour said she felt certain obligations to share her point of view in class.

“I was the only Black person in [my] English class,” Armour said. “Reading ‘Beloved’ was an experience that was difficult for me. I felt this pressure to bring my perspective as a Black person, especially to say things that other people might feel reluctant to say, or to use certain language to say straight up what’s going on.”

Similarly, BLACC member Anaya Olivas ’25 said discussing topics related to the African American experience, though important, can be uncomfortable and make her feel pressured to share her perspective.

“Sometimes this perspective can lead to an uncomfortable newness, hearing about the trauma of Black people or hearing certain words,” Olivas said. “For context, I was the only Black person in my entire middle school. Whenever we talked about the Black experience, I felt like I had to give my perspective so much, but I also didn’t want to speak for the whole Black community.”

Upper School Counselor Brittany Bronson said the obligation to represent an entire community puts pressure on students of color to share their perspectives.

“The pressure is very systemic,” Bronson said. “When you are the only person of color, it’s like the spotlight is on you. And so when it comes to doing things in class, people will look at you like, ‘You’re Black, so tell us what the Black experience is.’ But [one] can only speak from one’s own experience, and it shouldn’t be your responsibility to teach your classmates or even your teachers. Also, when reading Black authors, it’s treated as a special project, as opposed to it being normalized. From the outside looking in, we should really integrate [these perspectives] into the curriculum so that it’s not so separate and seen as special because it’s limited.”

Nonetheless, Armour said finding representation in the books she read in the classroom was important as it allowed her to feel acknowledged while bringing awareness and a deeper level of relatability to the various perspectives shared in class.

“Literature is such a powerful art form to educate people because it touches your emotions on a very personal level, especially when you can have a window into [a character’s] life,” Armour said. “Emotionally connecting with the traumas of slavery or Black history that go unsaid during the everyday makes the struggles more real. That’s why, not only for my own representation, Black authors creating works that are taught in schools is so important. It’s for my non-Black counterparts to see through the lens of [the characters] in a classroom setting. Having that sense of solidarity and understanding is so important.”

To introduce new perspectives into his course, Honors United States History (HUSH) teacher Erik C. Wade assigned his classes reading from “A Black Woman’s History of the United States” by Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross. The text tells American history through the perspective and anecdotes of African American women.

Wade said he made this choice to expose students to the complexities of the experiences of different races in order to understand the current world.

“Quite often, when we think about U.S. history, we think about it in white terms,” Wade said. “We were being taught certain parts of the narrative that are uncomplex. But we don’t think about African American History. So rather than centering on whiteness, I wanted to complicate [the narrative] with Black women. They had something substantial to do with the founding of this nation, with the ongoing redefinition of freedom and what opportunity looks like in the United States. It’s important not to overwhelm younger folks but at the same time to know exactly what type of country and history you’re inheriting. So then you’ll know this is why systemic racism is an ongoing thing. This is why the fight continues for Black people.’”

When discussing this topic, Armour said teachers who foster a safe and welcome environment allow her to feel more comfortable.

“Teachers who bring in all perspectives create a classroom environment where the discussion is healthy and positive, which really helps,” Armour said. “To a certain extent, though, there’s only so much a teacher can do because, at the end of the day, any teacher isn’t going to make me less aware that I’m Black or alleviate all the pressure. These are things that I’m going to live with for the rest of my life.”

I felt this pressure to bring my perspective as a Black person, especially to say things that other people might feel reluctant to say, or to use certain language to say straight up what’s going on.

— Tiffany Armour '25

In Wade’s two HUSH classes, there are no Black-identifying students. Wade said he is aware of his own race and position as a teacher in relation to his students when discussing topics of slavery and Black history.

“I’m hyper aware of myself being a Black man, even with a PhD being at Harvard-Westlake,” Wade said. “I struggle sometimes when I don’t see students who look like me in my class. These places weren’t necessarily made for me, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be a viable voice. It’s important that I’m there with [the students] to have these conversations because there are some teachers who don’t feel comfortable to have them. I try to create a space where people share what they actually believe, with the questions that they have.”

Honors English III teacher Stephanie Chiang said she felt the difficulty of teaching African American perspectives as someone who doesn’t identify as African American.

“I feel like a fraud, honestly,” Chiang said. “I feel like I’m not equipped to be talking about the Black experience because I have not experienced that kind of discrimination and violence. But what I can offer is creating a space where we can learn from each other and learn along with reading the texts. Because at the end of the day, what [the author] did so beautifully was to get us to discover and learn what it means to see and understand our own and others’ [experiences].”

To encourage conversations of Black history and recognize its importance in U.S. history, a week-long celebration of Black History was launched in 1926, called the Negro History Week. This week expanded to become Black History Month, celebrated every February, in 1976 when Former President Gerald R. Ford made it official, according to the Ford Library Museum.

Armour said that Black History Month has allowed her to connect with other people and celebrate her identity with them.

“[Black History Month] is a month that specifically highlights the fact that Black history is American history and how fundamental it is to this country,” Armour said. “Every day, every week, every month, there’s something new happening in the Black community, whether it’s a shooting or police brutality or discrimination. But this [month] is a time to not only recognize these struggles but also to have a month fully devoted to celebrating our culture. It’s also a time to connect with other Black people and share my culture with people that aren’t Black.”

From a historical perspective, Wade said Black History Month serves as a chance to look back on the progress the nation has made towards equality and look forward to what the future holds.

“Black History Month is always complicated because you could talk to different educators,” Wade said. “To those who are very keen on African American culture, having our contributions limited to a month is a bit of a travesty. But it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the strides that we’ve made as a nation and how our Black folks have contributed to that, thinking about how the battles that have been waged as far as equality, equity and opportunity in the United States are ongoing. It’s often also important to think about what the Black future looks like in the United States, not just in February, but beyond it.”

Even outside of the classroom, Armour said she felt aware of her race and was careful of how she presented herself as a result. To reckon with this, Armour said celebrating her culture and Black History Month has helped her navigate her own identity.

“I’m pretty aware of my Blackness when I step out into the world,” Armour said. “I am aware that I’m different from my non-Black counterparts. I love who I am and my heritage, but I recognize how things are different in different cultures. I know that I’m a representation of my culture as a Black girl, and I’m going to present myself in a way that I can make myself proud. At the end of day, I’m going to face discrimination being Black and being a woman. But I see how blessed I am to be who I am and to unapologetically express that. No pressure from the outside can change that.”

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MeJo Liao, Assistant Features Editor

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