Black History Month Portrait Workshop

To celebrate Black History Month, I held a registered art program for 8-12 year olds (10 of them!) to create portraits of incredible Black people. We only had 2 hours, so it was a bit rushed, though that was also the max amount of time I could keep them for a stand-alone program before they got wild.

I created packets with one page bios of some pre-selected people, and some worksheets that asked them to put down some things they wanted to highlight about their person. We started the class by looking at different portraits, talking about why they were made, and what they were expressing. Then I passed out the packets with the caveat that they could only swap packets ONCE and the kids found their subjects pretty quickly. I also handed out short picture books about the subjects so they could read about them in a different format as well.

I made sure to stay really active, asking them what they wanted to highlight, how they were going to do that, and why. We then talked about materials: watercolor and oil pastels. I gave a demo on how to use them, making sure to discuss common pitfalls (too much water, too much paint, color mixing on the paper vs in the wells, too much erasing). Then they got started!

My main mistake was not starting the class talking about why we celebrate Black History Month. I assumed that they had been doing that in school - we started off by talking about who they had been talking about at school, and they all could only remember MLK, which I should have known was a bad sign. And then, I should have talked about race. In all my preparation for this class, and in all my education and training in critical race theory and white privilege and allyship, I'm really surprised that I wasn't prepared for this obvious eventuality.

The group was made up of 6 kids who presented as white and 4 who presented as South Asian. The white girls table was totally mean girling it (talking smack about how one of them uses Wet and Wild makeup, and how Clinique is the only good kind, no it's not, what about this expensive brand, etc), with one particular perp who was a challenger in general and then said a racist comment. Her friends all called her out, and she said she didn't know what racism was, and then I asked her friends to define it for her. I wish I had engaged in a more in-depth conversation. I was in the mode of keeping us on track to finish all 10 portraits within the two hours and also, I got uncomfortable. I wish I had stuck with it, and remembered to avoid shaming her and talking about how comments and structures can be racist, but there's no use in pointing fingers and saying one or the other is a racist.

After class, I emailed the parents and let them know one of the tables had discussed racism, and sent out some resources to talk about race with your child, both for white kids and for kids who experience racism. Maybe that sparked some conversations.

Regardless, the portraits turned out well, we have a cool little gallery in the Children's Library now with black history makers, which was the point. But now I've belatedly remembered that it was just one of the points.