By Jennifer Ellis
When I am older and I look back on my high school years, I’ll think about prom, films I created, winning several media awards, the fun I had in leadership, hanging out with my friends, my favorite teachers and learning to drive up the winding freeway that takes me to my small charter school in the hills. This probably sounds like your typical teenage high school story, and for the most part, it is, but with a few racial twists here and there. One experience that I will never forget is the day that my brother, cousin, friend and I dressed up as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense for Decades Day.
Decades Day is one of the themed spirit days during Homecoming Week. Students dress up in clothing worn during a certain period like the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, etc. If you take part in homecoming activities, you are expressing school spirit. Last year was my brother and his best friend’s senior year, so we wanted to do something creative to express our culture. My brother and I grew up learning about Black history and culture in our home.
My dad was born and raised in Oakland, and his grandmother’s house is located one block from the original location where the Black Panther Party formed. When we visit the Bay Area, my parents make a concerted effort to show us our Black history and the strength of our people. When we saw the mural in West Oakland of the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute, my brother and I were so inspired. And when we were taught about the Black Panther Party, we felt an instant connection to the struggle for equality. As a matter of fact, recent events in Ferguson and New York are a harsh reminder that the struggle continues. In learning our history, we developed a strong sense of pride in who we are and the struggles that our ancestors have endured to create the opportunities we have today. So there you have it, we decided to go as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP).
I was nervous because I didn’t know how people would react. My assumption was that students probably wouldn’t recognize us because they didn’t know anything about the BPP and the few who did were probably misinformed. We thought this would be a great way to share our history and inform students. When the day came, we were all nervous. We planned to meet up together in the parking lot so we could walk into school unified. On a typical day, we are approached with smiles, hugs and hellos. We have a lot of friends, and our group hangs out at “the tables.” However, on that day, we received mixed reactions.
People looked at us with concern or frowns, while others thought our afro wigs were cool. Few of our friends approached us that morning. It was apparent that people felt they needed to distance themselves from us. One of our friends came up to us and asked, “Why did you dress up like a terrorist group?” Another asked, “What is the Black Panther Party?”
But I think the most shocking thing was the comment from an English teacher. While passing between classes, my brother and his best friend were confronted in a crowded hallway by an English teacher. The teacher asked, “What are you dressed up as?” My brother replied, “The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.” To his surprise, the teacher responded, “It’s not fair that you are allowed to come to school dressed as a hate group and other students aren’t allowed to come dressed as the KKK [Ku Klux Klan].”
It’s one thing to hear comments like this from a student, but from a teacher who has a college degree and has influence on students, this is outright crazy! Later, we heard from our peers that the teacher ranted to his entire class about how wrong it was for us to come as the BPP. They said that while he ranted, other students started to join in. There are many problems with the teacher’s actions, but what bothers me the most is that students are now misinformed about American history.
I was so furious when I heard the news that I immediately went to my principal. I explained why we dressed up as the Black Panther Party and he completely understood. My principal has a degree in history, so this might explain why he was so understanding.
However, it should be common knowledge that the KKK is responsible for the brutal murders of many Blacks throughout U.S. history. Even if you are not fully aware of the BPP, it is highly ignorant for anyone to compare the most notorious organized hate group in American history, the KKK, with an organization such as the BPP. A simple Google search would have informed this teacher of the BPP’s Ten-Point Program, which is the foundation for their work in the community—opportunities for oppressed groups.
Later that day, the teacher approached our group and made a private apology. He stated that his remarks were inappropriate because he is a teacher and we are students. He said he should have kept his opinions to himself. He didn’t apologize for his comments. Only that it was inappropriate for him to share them with students. This experience, and others like it, had a profound impact on me.
Since then, I have become more active in my community. I think it’s imperative for all of us to know our history because it continues to shape the present. So, to the teacher and students who continue to be misinformed about the BPP, I’d like to offer a link to the Zinn Project. And, in closing, I’d like to say, “we’ve got spirit, yes we do, we’ve got spirit, how about you.”
Note: For a classroom lesson on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, visit the Zinn Project: http://zinnedproject.org/ materials/whatwewantwhatwebelieveteachingwiththeblackpantherstenpointprogram/.
Jennifer Ellis is a senior at Minarets High School. Jennifer was recently selected as the Boys and Girls Club Fresno County Youth of the Year. She is also actively involved in the Girl Scouts where she makes films including the Women Inspiring Girls film and a public service announcement on inner beauty. This fall, Jennifer plans to attend a university where she will major in documentary film and tell the stories of struggle and triumph of communities of color. Contact her at email@example.com. Her twitter is @ JenniferEllis97.