Portland Public Schools

Black is Beautiful by Michelle Nicola

I taught parts of Kara Hinderlie’s Black is Beautiful lesson in Coyolillo, and again in two towns outside of Pinotepa Nacional, Oaxaca: the town of José María Morelos and the town of Lagunillas.

It took a lot of preparation to get all of the materials I needed to teach this lesson, and I am so grateful to two of the best librarians in the world, my friends Ross Betzer and Emily-Jane Dawson. Thanks to their efforts, I was able to use a YouTube video of students in Seattle reading Ann McGovern’s book, Black is Beautiful, and borrow a digital copy of My People, Langston Hughes’ poem coupled with stellar photography. 

Both books are in English, and I knew students would need my help understanding the words, so I typed up a translation of each and had copies on hand, just in case. What I really wanted students to focus on were the images, so if they didn’t get all the words, I was ok with that.  

To start the lesson, I asked students to think of all the things they could think of when they thought about the color black. As students called out answers, another student wrote the answers on the board. In Coyolillo the list was primarily objects- clothes, phones, pens, until at one point Jesús called out, “People!” and the class laughed. “Jesús is right,” I said, “people can be Black too.” In both Morelos and Lagunillas, students readily shared that people are Black, and there was no laughter in the comment.

We looked at the list. What did they notice? Were these things beautiful? 

In Coyolillo and Morelos, I used my laptop and a projector to show McGovern’s book. As we looked at each image, I asked students, “What do you notice? What colors do you see? Are there fancy things or everyday things in the photos?” 

“Why did Señora McGovern write this book?”

”Because she likes the color black?” came a response.  

“It’s possible. Any other ideas? What is she trying to get us to think about?” 

”That Black is beautiful?”  

“Great, yes, but why is that an important message?” 

”Maybe some people don’t think it’s beautiful?” came a tentative reply. 

Next, I introduced them to Langston Hughes. I told them about how at one point in time, in lots of places in the States, Black people and white people couldn’t eat in the same restaurants, couldn’t use the same bathrooms, couldn’t marry each other. As I spoke, I noticed students’ eyes growing wide and the room growing quiet. 

“The thing about oppression,” I said, “is that it doesn’t fit with who we are. We were born to be free. And when we are not free, we will fight until we get back to our natural state of freedom.” I talked about the civil rights era, and how everyone used their talents to fight for freedom. Langston Hughes’ talent was his poetry. He wanted everyone to see his people as beautiful. 

Before we read My People, I asked students if they knew what a metaphor was. Most didn’t, so I gave them an example. I then asked them to turn to their partner and try giving their partner an example. 

We read My People the first time for meaning. I helped students translate words they couldn’t get collectively. The second time, I asked them to look at the images. Why that image? What does it say? The third time, we found the metaphor.  

Next, we tried to write a few verses as a class about the town where the students lived. Breaking down how to teach metaphor has always been hard for me, but by the time I taught the lesson in Langunillas, I had something that worked. I ask students, “How would you describe the people in your town?” Then, we wrote all the adjectives they shouted out up on the board. From there, I said, “OK, so people in your town are happy. What plants, animals, objects represent happy?” Students made a list, and from there we used Hughes’ poem as a sentence frame to write our own verses. With more time, I would have them break out of the sentence frame and into their own creativity, but I used the time and the resources I had on hand.

The final piece of Hinderlie’s lesson that I taught had to do with hair. In Hinderlie’s lesson, she uses the book Hair Dance by Dinah Johnson; for my lesson I thought of Sandra Cisneros’ book The House on Mango Street. There’s a chapter in the book where the main character Esperanza describes each person in her family based on their hair. A quick Google search provided me with a pdf of the Spanish version. 

I asked a few students to read the text out loud. Then, I drew 5 smiling, bald faces on the board. I invited students to come up as artists and draw each family member as I read each one. So much laughter! I asked, “What do we know about each person’s personality, just based on a description of their hair? Does Esperanza love her mother? How do you know?” 

Next, students drew their own families. I asked them to write words that described the hair for each member. What did it look like? What did it smell like? How could their hair be a metaphor for their personality?

Students worked together on their family portraits. The energy in the room was jovial, despite this being my last lesson with them. I asked students to share their portraits with a small group, and then, just like that, my time was finished teaching in Coyolillo. We didn’t get to the final part of Hinderlie’s lesson, in which students choose a Black historical figure to write about. And it’s really, really hard to know the impact this lesson had on students. Did it change their perspective? Did it reinforce a sense of pride they already possessed? Did it plant a seed for future insight?  

My next steps with this lesson will be to adapt it for students who are learning Spanish. I will be posting on that at some point! 

My homebase was Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz. I taught in Coyolillo 2-3 times per week.

My homebase was Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz. I taught in Coyolillo 2-3 times per week.

I visited two towns in Oaxaca (Lagunillas and Morelos) toward the end of my Fulbright where I taught the Black is Beautiful lesson.

I visited two towns in Oaxaca (Lagunillas and Morelos) toward the end of my Fulbright where I taught the Black is Beautiful lesson.

Here are a few of the “Pelos” family portraits by the students in Coyolillo.

It’s the journey. by Michelle Nicola


As a person who derives more than a degree of self-worth from getting things done, I always feel a slight internal eye roll when people remind me that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

Uh-huh, I think, as I check another thing off my to-do list.  

And yet, my recent trip to the Mexican State of Coahuila served as a daily reminder that, while arriving at the event is definitely important, the journey, the struggle and tension of experiencing doubt and finding purpose, that matters too.  

It all started back in September when my friend Daniela told me about the XIX Encuentro de Pueblos Negros. Daniela and her team at Casa Coyolillo wanted to attend the Encuentro in order to represent their town and its heritage and to gain insights as to how other Afro-Mexican towns are advancing the cause of their people. One month later, I started a GoFundMe to help make this dream possible. In a little over a week, thanks to the many incredible and generous donations from friends and family, we had enough money to take four leaders from Casa Coyolillo on the journey to El Nacimiento, Coahuila. For two members of Casa Coyolillo, this would be the first time flying, and for all of us it would be a journey of self-discovery.

Me, Gaby and Karen before leaving Xalapa. Félix and Kelly came to send us off!

Me, Gaby and Karen before leaving Xalapa. Félix and Kelly came to send us off!

Boarding the plane!

Boarding the plane!

The story of the Mascogo people is a story of crossing borders and cultures, of resistance and freedom.

My first moment of self discovery came when arranging the travel- I won’t go too much into the details, but let’s just say that it’s a good thing I’m a teacher and not a travel agent, unless of course, you like journeys that take the long, complicated routes, and require you to pay a little bit more money. If that’s your travel style, hit me up- I can make that happen for you. ;)

Four bus rides and one flight later, we arrived in the town of Múzquiz in the state of Coahuila. My friends went to check out some of the festivities and I went to bed (at that point my need for sleep was greater than any FOMO). The next day we were up by 6 am to catch the 7 am yellow school bus that would take us to El Nacimiento, the town of the Negros Mascogos. 

The story of the Mascogo people is a story of crossing borders and cultures, of resistance and freedom. The inhabitants of El Nacimiento are descendants of enslaved peoples who escaped slavery in the United States and settled in Mexico, where slavery had been abolished in law thanks to the proclamations of Father Miguels Hidalgo y José María Morelos since 1810. In practice, however, the abolishment of slavery took a few more decades and shifted depending on who was winning the border wars fought by Great Britain, France and Spain in the Americas. The relationship between Texas (a slave state) and Coahuila (a Mexican state in a country that had abolished slavery) also affected the realities of freedom. All that said, at this point in history slaves, Native Americans and abolitionists all looked toward Mexico as the land of freedom.

Historians debate the origins of the term “mascogos,” but it seems to come from the union of two groups: the Seminole Indians, and enslaved Africans. Both groups lived throughout the areas no known as Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, and the relationship between these two groups started towards the end of the XVII century. Many people know that enslaved Africans in the United States escaped to the North to gain their freedom, but I’m not sure how many of us knew that the south, especially the state of Florida, was another route to freedom. For a time, Spain controlled Florida, and attempted to maintain its control over the territory by accepting escaped slaves as free people, on the conditions that they convert to Catholicism and fight for the Spanish crown. By 1821, Spain had lost its claim to Florida for good, but the cultural and commercial exchanges that the Seminole and Black peoples was established.

Several wars and broken treaties later, the Seminoles, Black Mascogos and Kickapoo peoples decided to travel south and seek refuge in Mexico. In October 1850, the Mexican government recognized them as Mexican.

There is so much more to this story. So many more stories to read, listen to and consider. Much of the information I wrote above I obtained from the book Negros Mascogos: Una odisea al Nacimiento by Claudia Cristina Martínez García and Carlos Manuel Valdés Dávila.

My friends from Casa Coyolillo and I spent the next two days listening to stories like these - stories about doña Gertrudis, matriarch of El Nacimiento who songs are a mix of Spanish words and slave spirituals, of the fight to include Afro-Mexican on the 2020 census and of Francia Marquéz’s bold leadership in Colombia. We sang, danced and delighted in watching Afro-Mexican performers from the state of Guerrero dance “La danza de los diablitos” (The dance of the little devils). We ate the most amazing home cooked meals of beans, potatoes, tortillas, soup- all prepared over an open fire.

On the 3 buses (and 8 hour journey) back to Saltillo, Coahuila, the five of us were abuzz with questions. What are we going to do to prepare the people in Coyolillo for the census? What does it mean to be Black in Mexico? What is the difference between reclaiming a cultural tradition and a cultural memory? What does “progress” and “development” mean, and who does it benefit?

These questions don’t have easy answers, and in fact, the 8 hours of travel time wasn’t enough. That night, the five of us, along with two more friends who we met at the conference, Roberto and Pablo, stayed up until 1 am in the hotel restaurant, feeling out what we had learned. Daniela talked about the short film we had watched about doña Gertrudis. At the start of the film, doña Gertrudis introduces herself by saying, “Soy negra y fea pero tengo claridad.” (I am Black and ugly, but clear/frank/open-minded.) Daniela asked us, “Why? Why does she have to say she’s ugly? Why do we have to learn we are ugly, only to unlearn it?” Her words hit my heart. Why, indeed?

I’m back in Xalapa now, and it’s been a week since all of this happened. My notebook is filled with notes to review, my pockets filled with business cards, and the list of articles to read continues to grow. This is not something I’m going to be able to cross off my to-do list anytime soon. This is a journey that I was lucky enough to take with mis hermanos y hermanas from Casa Coyolillo. This is a journey that, in reality, has just begun- there are still so many fascinating stories to learn, so much work to be done to promote justice and self-love. And so, the journey continues . . . .

Two young women in traditional Mascogo dress.

Two young women in traditional Mascogo dress.

Veracruz represents!

Veracruz represents!

Karen, Daniela, doña Cruz Gaby & Enrique pose with dancers from Coyolillo and Guerrero.

Karen, Daniela, doña Cruz Gaby & Enrique pose with dancers from Coyolillo and Guerrero.

As I pack my bags by Michelle Nicola


As I pack my bags for Xalapa, Mexico,

unexpected words and phrases keep jumping in between the rolled up shirts and the most likely unnecessary extra pair of shoes.  There, in between the shoes and the t-shirts, is Marge Percy’s poem “To be of use,” the one where she says,

“The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.”

And there, next to my summer-to-fall dress is Kathy Jetnil Kijiner’s promise, “Still, there are those who see us,” from her poem Dear Matafele Peinam, which she read at the UN Climate Summit in 2014.  

Clarisa Pinkola Estes’ words wriggle their way in between my smartwool socks and pajamas.  “My friends,” she says, “do not lose heart. We were made for these times.”

Sometimes it’s hard to remember not to lose heart. Sometimes it feels like the only stories I hear are stories of separation, disconnection, violence towards life, hateful words that build walls rather than kind words that strengthen connection.

Rebecca Solnit’s words tuck themselves in next to my passport. “We live and die by our stories.”

As a Fulbright scholar in Mexico, I go seeking a different kind of story than what you might find in your local paper, or in a weathered textbook.  I go seeking the hidden stories of Afro-Mexicans, the largely unrecognized stories that have shaped Mexican culture and have not found their way into mainstream Spanish world language curriculum, at least not yet.  As a Spanish world language teacher, I go seeking ways to give my students stories that complicate their ideas about identity while simultaneously teaching them to use Spanish language skills to connect with others. As a person who wants to be of use, I go ready to listen, hopeful that I can share the stories I hear by creating curriculum.

I unzip the front pocket of my suitcase, and I realize that I’ve forgotten something. My cohort of 38 Fulbright scholars and I have the honor and responsibility of representing the United States to the people we meet.  Reading the bios of my cohort members, it becomes clear that we’re representing the United States that believes in connection, inclusion, and care for one another. I realize that as much as I go to listen, I’m also carrying with me stories that don’t necessarily make worldwide news but that still define our nation.

There’s the story of Rabbi Brian whose organization, Religion Outside the Box, seeks to promote spiritual fitness with the God of Your Understanding.  Two years ago, the sidewalk outside Brian’s home in the Hollywood district was covered in anti-Semitic chalk messaging.  Brian, his wife Jane, and his two children changed the message of that chalk-hate to #lovealwayswins.

There’s the story of my friend Carol, a feminist farmer who doesn’t waste any time posting about climate justice - she lives it, she works it, she keeps all of us connected to the land that is our lifeline.

There’s Natalie, my friend of 23 years, whose keen insights and fierce convictions make her and incredible ally to survivors of domestic violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, and promoter of love, acceptance and mental health.

I have countless stories of my educator friends who jump into the work head first.  Like my cousin Jill, whose unit on neighborhoods gave bilingual second grade students the vocabulary and the ideas they needed to become change-makers, to tell the stories of their neighborhoods and to take action to improve the place where they live.  Liz, Joyce, Kathleen, Nick, Haukur, Miles, Michelle S., Erika, Roberta, Emily G. . . . I’m packing all of their stories of excellence in education too.

I add other stories to my suitcase - Linda Christensen, author of Reading, Writing & Rising Up, and Teaching for Joy and Justice, and a mentor who radically changed how I approach teaching. I’m adding the story of her husband Bill Bigelow, and colleague Tim Swineheart who pioneered a movement that in 2016 resulted in Portland Public Schools becoming possibly the only school district in the nation with a resolution stating that teachers can and should teach about climate justice.  

I’m taking those stories with me too.

There’s room for more, so I add stories about Beth who has tirelessly amped up her activism game, using her talents to promote a more inclusive and loving and just world. And what about my sister Teresa who started Untame in order to nourish feminine vitality? I add her story too! My parents, Tony and Sharon, who taught me unconditional love, and my brothers, Joey and Jacob, who teach me unconditional teasing. ;)

It seems to me that this practice of seeing one another begins with the telling of stories.  And if Rebecca Solnit’s words are true, then the stories that we tell about each other, to each other matter. They matter a lot. As I pack my bags for Xalapa, I make a promise to listen to the untold stories, and to share the stories I know to be true.