Participatory History Lessons and Moveable Barriers
[Published in I Want Everyone to Know: The Black History Month Doors at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School by Laura Glazer, Published by KSMoCA, 2022. ISBN 9798826366028]
The Black History Month doors at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School remind me of the power that collective, collaborative acts have in educating. These artworks are about so much more than representation. Like Black History Month, they help us remember just how big and beautiful Black History is while also allowing us to reconsider where and how learning happens. This collective effort to weave Black History into everyday learning is both familiar and dear to me. The doors aren’t the point, they are pathways—moveable barriers full of possibilities. These doors are kinfolk.
Each one is an artwork co-authored by teachers, students, and staff from a Pre-K–5th grade classroom at the school, and they are all heavy-hitters. Facing outward, they transform the hallways. Together the doors create an incredible exhibition experience, portraying people and scenes from the Civil Rights Era like young Ruby Bridges' brave first day of school in 1960, to present-day critical thinkers and scholars like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones. There are also timelines, comments on racism, and celebrations of contemporary Black life and role models, all made with drawings, collage, markers, and anything else you can imagine. They are incredible. While wandering through the school’s hallways to admire and explore the doors, I realize that I am part of a participatory history lesson, where learning (and teaching) are happening everywhere all the time. In addition to being works of art, the doors are evidence of vibrant collaborations between students, teachers, families, and staff.
The Black History Month doors co-exist and intermingle with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) art collection, which also lives in the school’s hallways and is always available to view. The KSMoCA collection is the outcome of another school-wide collaboration. The artworks in the collection come from various workshops and projects that connect our student participants to artists whose identities, backgrounds, and work reflect the school’s students and the art world we believe is possible now. When my colleague, Harrell Fletcher, and I started KSMoCA at the school, we knew we wanted to make the impermeable and elite world of art relatable to our Dr. MLK Jr. School student participants and to our Portland State University college students. In other words, we wanted to (re)move the barriers that limit imagination and opportunity so that our participants could imagine more possibilities for their futures, artistic or otherwise. Art isn’t really the point, but it is the pathway we imagine through.
Today, continuing the work at KSMoCA means more than bringing art and artists into the school. It also means collaborating with everyone here to archive and document the experiences for future participants and audiences. We consider, and re-consider, how the work we make together can move forward and be relatable to students coming along soon. For my part, I like to look for the moveable barriers. Each time I arrive at the school I look for moments and doors like these to open. This work teaches me to pay attention to the sheer delight on a student’s face when it’s full of discovery, and to move quietly aside so they can shine through the openings. The Black History Month doors at Dr. MLK Jr. Elementary School and this book bring me a similar joy. They offer a place for me to participate in the collective, collaborative act of making Black History in the present. Working together to build these participatory history lessons matters, and I want everyone to know.