Rhetoric vs. Reality

social justiceee

A few days ago, I was invited to attend a school-tour of a local Kansas City school that is praised for students’ high-performance on standardized tests. In the first few minutes of the tour, the school official introduced herself and began to tell the group about the school’s approach to education. The first statement that was stated after “Welcome” was “Our school serves some of the most disadvantaged students in the local area and their neighborhood schools are failing, but since our school is accessible to anyone within the immediate area, we are able to take in students from various parts of the local area”.  Now, I had to give the side-eye to this statement. Why? In listening to this rhetoric that streamlined throughout the tour, I felt as if this particular school had the view that their students needed to be saved.

As we continued our tour, we were led into a number of classes for observation. We had the chance to see: teaching style, students’ responses to instruction, academic work and etc. In the classrooms, students were expected to take in information, regurgitate it and to be quiet. Structurally, students were placed at desks in a traditional format. It felt very formulaic. The school official was noticeably a product of the school-culture from the way she communicated with the group- quick to question our knowledge of what we saw, slow to actively listening to responses and a bit aloof to her own child-like behavior with us. For one group member, she called on a gentleman to reprimand him for his silence during the tour. After our responses to questions posed to us after each classroom visit, she would remark with canned responses and a smile that would scare anyone.

Okay, I can’t say that the school is a bad choice on grounds of their selected tour-guide for visitors but there was a leery feeling that raced down my spine during the entire visit. During the visit, I saw various college banners placed on walls and classroom doors. I saw only two students in the hallway for disciplinary action. In all of the classes, students were placed at their desks in an organized fashion with the minimum chaos of books and papers. I didn’t see much laughter or smiles from students. In the week prior, I went to a similar school that was college-prep and students were visually happy and joyful upon seeing visitors. But for this school, the vibe was a lot different. For me, I have the belief that school should be engaging, pleasurable and rigorous. However, this wasn’t quite the case for this school. Yes, coursework appeared rigorous but students weren’t enjoying their classes nor engaged with the content.

In a recent journal article I read “Engagement of African-American college students through the use of hip-hop pedagogy” that was published in 2013 and written by Tracy Hall and Barbara Martin, the article argued that Black students will not graduate college at the same rate as White students because curriculum and instruction isn’t representative of or geared towards the Black-experience. In reflecting on this argument, it is more than important to advocate for students and to get students to become advocates of their own education.

At the end of my undergraduate program, I went to the chair of my department and argued that the curriculum lacked diversity and centered Whiteness. Now, I can’t see if much has changed over the years but speaking up is vital. I do not agree with the idea that a student has to go through an ancillary department to get what they need. No. I believe that students should be able to take required classes that are fundamentally diverse in nature. In all of my years of schooling, I have never felt that school offered me space to feel confident in my identity.

For many students of color, school is an extension of greater society. Yes, you will hear the rhetoric that school will propel you forward and give you the ability to find a great job after you’re done. Sure, this could be the case. However, the curriculum at many institutions is steeped in Whiteness and further marginalizes the marginalized.

A question I frequently ask is, “What good is an education that doesn’t care about your existence?”

Yes, I will fight tooth and nail for schools and institutions that are truly as diverse and inclusive as many have claimed. Yes, you may have prepared my child for college, but have you taught them that #Blacklivesmatter is equally as important? Just a question. Have you taught them that their humanity is not up for debate and that their right to exist and live is a right and not a privilege? Just a question. Or have you taught them how to pass a test, answer questions and get an acceptance letter to their top schools of choice. Just a question. Or have you taught them to think critically abou the world around them and to fight for the rights of those that are marginalized and invisible. Just a question. Since I hate binary-thinking, I believe that you can prepare students for college and have them prepared to be citizens of the world. However, its not always the case.

 

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Transformative Education: Effective Teaching Strategies in Urban Education

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Transformative education is a term that I often use when describing my personal pedagogy for teaching. In being an advocate for social-justice, I believe that education should engage students. A personal teacher of mine, Dr. Bell Hooks from Kentucky, often speaks about transformative education in her research. Hooks (1994) described education as being “the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will be a place where teachers grow…” (Hooks, p. 21). In seeking to change the world, the teacher can spark change within the classroom. The classroom setting is the most radical space for possibility… (Hooks, 1994, p. 12)

As an educator that believes in the importance of social-justice as being the lens through which I see the world, I understand that the classroom must be a radical place for transformation. In being an African-American woman and educator to predominantly African-American students, it is mandatory and not a luxury to have our narratives centered within the American-framework.  Black feminist and lesbian poet, Audre Lorde (1984), tells us in her work Sister Outsider that we are never whole when we are silent about the issues we are fighting internally, and we must speak about these issues for the sake of our sanity (p. 42).

Transformative education forces educators to look critically at their curriculum and to unpack the hidden or imposed values within material. To have classrooms as radical spaces, it is incumbent upon the teacher to address biases and stereotypes. Why is this important? Before any effective teaching can take place, the curriculum must should be analyzed for any disparities that would prevent students from learning or wanting to learn. Ineffective curriculum can marginalize and oppress students. In being in resistance to a society that lacks the humanization of all of its members, it becomes the responsibility of educators to teach with equity. All teachers should teach with social-equity as being the pedagogy for instruction. In “Equity Pedagogy: An Essential Component of Multicultural Education” in Theory Into Practice by Cherry McGee Banks and James A. Banks (1995), pedagogy of social equity is:

Teaching strategies and classroom environments that help students from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural groups attain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to function effectively within, and help create and perpetuate, a just, humane and democratic society. (p.152)

On one occasion, a teacher within my school asked if I could substitute for her split-level class (second and third grade). For her lesson, she wanted the students to work out of a workbook that was used to teach principles from a new implemented school-wide program on leadership by Stephen Covey. As the students began to work, a Muslim-student raised his hand and said that he didn’t celebrate any of the holidays in his workbook. I grabbed one of the workbooks and noticed that the list of holidays were all Judeo-Christian. So, I asked the student if he wanted to tell his peers about the holidays that he celebrates. He declined. So, I began to tell the students that Muslims celebrate Eid, a celebration of community, family, and prayer. The student began to smile and add to my statement. As the student began to explain Eid, I decided to show the students a visual representation of Eid through YouTube. In having an open conversation about this multicultural issue, it allowed students to learn about another religion and to think critically about texts. In “Pedagogical Approaches to Diversity in the English Classroom: A Case Study of Global Feminist Literature” by Julie M. Barst (2013), she explained that “we study diversity not just for the sake of diversity or to benefit our future careers but to learn to identify those wo lack power or voice within our communities…” (p. 151). In going through curriculum, it is important to interrupt and interrogate the material and to speak openly with students about these discrepancies. Education isn’t going to be simple. It will be messy and multicultural issues will make everyone in the classroom vulnerable. However, it is unjust to ignore the voices of those without power in our communities as Barst stated in her research.

In advocating for a radical form of education that is transformative and based in social-justice, it is imperative to decolonize and break away from conventional ways of thinking that are stifling to the mission of social-justice. In Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy by Henry Giroux, he stated that “…schools are inextricably linked to a larger set of political and cultural processes and they not only reflect the antagonisms embodied in such processes but also embody and reproduce them” (p.98). By recognizing that the classroom is a place of endless possibilities for students (and teachers), we must make risks propelling communities forward that are historically marginalized and oppressed. The culture of a school is important because it becomes the embodiment of certain values. If these embodied values are integrated within the school, it could potentially liberate or oppress students. In transformative education, various approaches to education in and outside of the classroom may need to be utilized to interrupt inequities. In one example, Barst (2013) encourages teachers to take a feminist approach to curriculum to confront historical and societal injustices against women and girls by looking at the historical and cultural context to the political and feminist issues in a text (p. 152). In this specific approach, the teacher is centering the conversation around a population that has encountered gendered violence, silencing and socio-economic oppression. By looking specifically at the historical and cultural context to a text, it teaches students to analyze a text and to draw connections to the world. In relating the text to the world, students will be more apt to listen and to enter dialogue among each other. Hooks (1994) argued that it is vital that we have conversations to find solutions and to heal. She stated that

Conversation is the central location of pedagogy for the democratic educator. Talking to share information, to exchange ideas is the practice both inside and outside academic settings that affirms to listeners that learning can take place in varied time frames and that knowledge can be shared in diverse models of speech. (p. 44)

Hooks challenges the classroom teacher to hold more conversations to allow for information to be shared, challenged and heard. In this mutual exchange, participants are given the opportunity to hear various forms of speech and to appreciate linguistic diversity. As previously stated, transformative education is radical and unconventional- it centers marginalized and oppressed populations and seeks social-justice. In the classroom, students should feel empowered and accepted. In The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children, Dr. Gloria Billings Ladson (1994) argued that “cultural hegemony is the established view of things- a commonsense view of what is and why things happen that serves the interests of those people already privileged in a society” (p. 46).  The route to social-justice is one deeply rooted in providing all students access to an educational-model that doesn’t silence their narratives. In the classroom, educators must confront and resist White hegemony. However, this resistance is often fought against and upheld because of the power structure in place within many schools. Nonetheless, this resistance is vital in confronting the social-inequities present within curricula and systems of education. In tackling this issue, Billings-Ladson (1994) encourages educators to

approach curriculum through culturally-relevant teaching because it is a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes. These cultural referents are not merely vehicles for bridging or explaining the dominant culture; they are aspects of the curriculum in their own right. (p. 18)

Educators that are student-centered and approaches curriculum through culturally-relevant teaching exposes students to a radical form of education that discusses multicultural issues and how they are connected and affects the world around them. In this approach to education, students and teachers become reflective and starts to see systems and their importance within the world.

In reflecting on this paper, I felt a rage overcome me because of the continuous work that is needed to fight against social-inequities within communities of color. In being an African-American woman that grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, I was often confronted with the social-inequities that many students of color contend with on the daily basis. My working-class parents would often shuffle my brother and I throughout school-districts within the state of Missouri due to financial-strains. In this shuffling, we attended overcrowded schools, racist teachers, tracking systems, a lack of money for resources, unqualified teachers and curriculum steeped in racism, sexism, and homophobia. I was never taught how to deal with these issues because they were accepted as normal and a part of the educational-system. I came from a home in which my father was addicted to crack and unemployed with a mother that was forced to work multiple jobs to  provide for the family. In my own narrative, my parents constantly reinforced the importance of education and becoming better than them. My parents had their own issues, but they pushed us to exceed and to make an impact in the world. In reflecting on my parents and my own experiences, I hope to make an impact within this field and provide quality education that is just and humane. In “Pedagogy for Liberation: Spoken Word Poetry in Urban Schools” by Mia Fiore (2015), she argued that “teachers who understand their students and recognize the importance of their students’ culture and interests are likely to create a genuine learning community in which students are actively engaged” (p. 828). In concurring with Fiore, I want to invite students to a mutual exchange of knowledge sharing and construction that allows for them to center their experiences and to draw connections to the world around them. As an African-American woman that grew up in urban Kansas-City, I know that I was supposed to be a statistic according to research. However, I am still here. I am still pushing to construct a new way of seeing curriculum and instruction within this field.

References

Banks, C. A., & Banks, J. A. (1995). Equity pedagogy: An essential component of multicultural education. Theory Into Practice, (3).

Barst, J. M. (2013). Pedagogical Approaches to Diversity in the English Classroom: A Case Study of Global Feminist Literature. Pedagogy Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature Language Composition and Culture, (1).

Fiore, M. (2013). Pedagogy for Liberation. Education and Urban Society, (7).

Giroux, H. A., Freire, P., & McLaren, P. (1988). Teachers as intellectuals: Toward a critical pedagogy of learning. Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Trumansberg, NY: Crossing Press.

You are more than worthy! Expect Greatness!

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I received a call yesterday from someone asking about college. Now, this individual was straightforward and asked the reasons for why they could be denied in the admissions’ process.

So, I told the prospective student that there are a few reasons for a denial, but there are many reasons why he could be accepted. He was a bit shocked.

In working with transcripts daily and seeing the accomplishments of students far and near, I do not place restrictions on students. I don’t work according to a deficiency model. If you are struggling, but you are wanting to aim high then we will work it out.

Listen, I failed and dropped out of graduate-school the first semester. I was academically dismissed. I was done. For me, I thought the world was ending. Yes, I was appreciative that I could get to that point, but I knew that I wanted to keep going. So, a good friend of mine told me to get back into the game and ‘talk to that school’. Well, I did exactly that. I talked to a few folks and I was able to get back into my program on academic probation.

Listen, I came out of my program with a GPA over 3.0. So, I told the prospective student. I let him know that a struggle doesn’t have to stop you. A struggle is just a challenge, but not a full stop. You can do anything if you have the willingness to do so.

So, the student went ahead and made plans to apply.

Lesson of the day: You must never allow your current circumstances to determine your future.

Now, it isn’t going to be easy, but it is possible.

“Back home, people are dying to learn…”

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Over the course of three years, I have met peers and friends from countries near and far. In the meeting these individuals, I’ve learned of the struggles that one may encounter in seeking to get an education. As being an American, I’ve never thought twice about getting an education. Yes, college is and can be very expensive, but I never questioned the accessibility of college. As a working-class Black American, I know how expensive higher-education can be if your parents or family doesn’t have money to pay for it. Nonetheless, financial aid would be an option. However, is this the case for everyone? Is education truly accessible for every individual that we may encounter in our classes or in our personal lives?

If you hold American citizenship, you are afforded privilege. Yes, that is a huge statement to make. Yes, it is a political statement too. However, I know the layered reality of being American and how it is very nuanced. Nonetheless, American citizenship entitles an individual with a lifestyle that is free from many of the struggles of those that do not hold citizenship and those that aren’t documented. Now, how do I know about these struggles as an American with privileges due to her citizenship? Well, keep reading.

About a year ago, I encountered students that were unable to travel on a trip with their classmates because of their immigration status. Due to their lack of documentation, this group of students stayed behind at school and had to miss their end-of-year trip. As I spoke to these students, I began to understand how privilege doesn’t come without its responsibilities. In the case of these students, some could argue that they were being punished for their immigration status. While others may simply state that they were out of luck. For me, I asked the question, “how are we making education accessible to those that aren’t documented, without citizenship or aren’t financially able?”.  Now, this is just one scenario to think about as we travel down this journey of accessibility and privilege.

In my college experience, I’ve met undocumented and international students that have forced me to check my own privilege. For some international students, working isn’t optional. Why? Families are unable to fund their child’s education and housing while in American. Also, the dollar can be valued at a higher rate than their country’s currency. In putting this in perspective, if you are an international student that is taking undergraduate courses at a full-time status (12 credit hours or more) at the international rate at a currency-rate that is much higher than where you are from, your family can go into poverty in trying to sponsor you. Now, I’ve met students from several countries and their parents are able to sponsor their student’s housing and education. However, this isn’t true for some international students. In the case of those students that are coming from poor families, working doubles or triples and going to school full-time becomes mandatory. Not only is this mandatory for students without a choice, but many of these same students are working extremely hard to send money back home to family that has sacrificed savings to send them here to study.

Over this past summer, I observed at a local Kansas City, Missouri high-school within two ESL (English as a second language) classes and some of the students would tell me how they would come from school and work full-shifts afterwards and during the night to help their families since they knew more English than their parents. For one older student from Tanzania, he shared with me that he wanted to join the military like his older brother in order to acquire American citizenship to make his life easier. In conversing with these students, I knew that their narratives and those from my college-classes had to become centered. I never knew about the struggles of undocumented or international students. Honestly, I thought education was extremely accessible because of financial-aid.  However, this is simply a fantasy and a realization of unchecked privilege.

Yesterday, I went on my usual coffee-break and saw a good friend of mine. As usual, we engaged in small-talk and eventually changed the topic to education. As a Sudanese-American, my friend began to tell me of the trials of those in her country and how the youth are dying to get the chance to come to America to become educated. In her life, she told me of the struggles of her parents and how they have sacrificed for her to be in America. As she spoke of the struggles of her parents and those back in her country, tears began to roll from her eyes. She told me that I would never understand and only those with her experience could know the hardship(s) associated with trying to get an American education.

As I reflect on my own position in this world, I know that there’s no space for unchecked privilege when people are “dying” to have the thing(s) that I have or take for granted. Quickly I am reminded that I need to take back-seat and allow others to take charge of their narratives. As a person of privilege, I can’t control the narratives of others. As a Black American, I understand oppression well, but I understand my position as being an American. For many, it is easy to complain about the cost of education and how it would be nice to simply go to school without working, but for those that aren’t financially-able and for those that aren’t given the privilege to simply go to school without work, please stop and check your privilege. As someone once said, “the world doesn’t revolve around you”.

 

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: The Fight for Life

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer and professor of Literature, prides himself in writing in his native-tongue of Gikuyu to articulate social issues in Africa, specifically during the time of British-rule in Kenya. In his own quest of seeking truth and asking important questions, he knew that revolution could only come through his right of using the language he grew up speaking with those within his own community.

Thiong’o grew up in a large peasant family and saw the British settle throughout his country. As he experienced the changes that would come with the settlers, he started to write in opposition to the issues within Kenya and within Africa. His writings would eventually have him exiled and imprisoned.

As a student of literature, I became quickly attached to the story of Thiong’o. For me, his story is the story of many Black and Brown individuals across the world. In the search for truth, important questions must be asked. In the asking of these questions, we have to look at ourselves and center our narratives. In the case of Thiong’o, his writings became a weapon for disrupting social-norms. In using his weapon of choice, he began to question his use of English as being the vehicle for his message. He understood the importance of Afro-European Literature and why many African writers wrote in the language of their colonizers (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, etc). However, he knew that his message had to be delivered with a purely African language. He didn’t want to fight through the double-consciousness that accompanied his writing through the English language. He wanted to use his native-tongue to connect with other Africans that spoke Gikuyu.

For Thiong’o, language is life. Language is an embodiment of a culture that is specific to a people. If a people are stripped of their language, they are stripped of their culture. In being stripped of one’s culture, you are without the very thing that gives you community- a sense of belonging. In using his native tongue, he can preserve his community.

In writing Gikuyu, he knew his writings or his messages could be heard and read by those within his community. In revolting against a system that dehumanizes a people, he wanted to reach the very community that nurtured his very life as a boy and as a man.

In reflecting on Thiong’o, it is vital that we preserve our language(s) in the face of imperialism. We must not be afraid to speak our tongues. In speaking and clinging to our cultures, we are centering our own narratives. In centering our narratives, we are creating and sustaining visibility.

For Thiong’o, revolution must be fought on the front lines. Revolution starts with our own conviction to seeking truth and liberation.

Will you be bold enough to stand alone? Will you be bold enough to center your narrative? Will you be bold enough to go against the grain and persist in your truth?

In the words of Thiong’o, “A writer who tries to communicate the message of revolutionary unity and hope in the languages of the people becomes a subversive character…A democratic participation of the people in the shaping of their own lives or in discussing their own lives in languages that allow for mutual comprehension is seen as being dangerous to the good government of a country and its institutions”

You must not be afraid to be subversive.

You must disrupt.

You must stand up to social injustices.

Reference:

Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London, Nairobi, Portsmouth, 1986), pp.26-30

 

His Letter: “I’m an immigrant from a small city…”

Today, I was given a sheet of notebook paper with writing on it. I looked at it and I was unsure of how to react to it. It was a handwritten letter. I couldn’t remember the last time I was given a letter. On the paper, there was pencil. The writer was a sixth grader from California. He was writing to get information about the university and to see how the university approached diversity since he was an immigrant student from a small town in his state.

In his human-experience, he recognized the layers of his existence as a middle-school student. More importantly, he centered himself. He made his narrative matter. In reading the lined paper, I wanted to cry. Why? In some schools, students aren’t given the chance to center their narratives. However, this student did. He wanted his audience to know about his background and how it affects his daily life.

He was not simply a student, but he was an immigrant student that wanted to know how a potential future college would welcome him and his narrative. How bold! How conscious he is to think about the intersectional nature of identity!

I don’t know who this student is, but I applaud him for his quest for self-actualization. In reading his sincere letter, I felt compelled to reflect on my own self-actualization. Are we being honest with ourselves? Are we accepting of our narratives?

How does a sixth-grade student get to the point of recognizing that their narrative is vital in how they navigate their life? Who taught them? Where did they learn this?

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She Told Me…

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I was a sophomore in high-school when I was told that I did a ‘great and professional job as an African-American’ after I performed my poetry for the talent show. As I heard this compliment or microaggression, I curled up my lips into a smile and walked away. As a student, how could I respond to this? What was I to do?

Who was this person? It was my Health and Sex Education teacher.

The comment has never left me. If anything, I keep it as a reminder for the work that is required of all of us in this fight for equitable conditions for underrepresented and marginalized students. In my high-school, I was a part of the 10% of minority students. I was a part of the 10% that was absent from the curriculum. I was a part of the 10% that was seen as trouble-makers in the school. I was a part of the 10% that was suffering in silence.

As being a Black girl in a school that left me voiceless and invisible, I faded into the background until I fought my way into the center. At a certain point in high-school, I couldn’t take it. I just couldn’t allow my narrative to be wiped off the face of the Earth. I couldn’t sit in class and allow peers and my teachers to say things that weren’t true about me. It felt as if a war was being waged against me.

In the same year, I was told by a peer sitting behind me in English class that I couldn’t be a terrorist because of the floral pink scarf that I was wearing on my head.

Say what?

As things became worst, I remember going to lunch late one day because I wanted to check the status of my admission at a local university. As I checked the status and saw that I was admitted into my top pick, I flew down the hallway and towards the cafeteria. As I was running, I was stopped by a staff member. As she stopped me, I explained to her the good news and she chuckled and said, “you’re running as if it’s been a terrorist attack”.

Come again.

In reflecting on the experiences of being a Black Muslim student, I cringe. I cry. I hurt. Why? Because the pain runs deep.

As a marginalized student, where do you go when there’s nowhere to go? So, I ask you this question as you engage in this world as a consumer. How do we create safe spaces for all people? How do we make sure that narratives aren’t being erased? How do we make sure that we aren’t creating spaces that leave people voiceless?

For me, I’ve realized that fighting and working towards social-equality is a mandate for all of us. We must work for freedom. We must work to create a global community that is pluralistic.

 

A Letter to the Future Generation

Dear Future Leaders, Innovators, Intellectuals,

I mark today as the first day of your endless possibilities and the last day of your doubts. You do not need to fit into a certain space for mere acceptance by fellow peers or onlookers. You must create space. You must pull out that shovel from the closet and dig. You must find the heart to dig beneath the rubble and make a long-lasting impact on this world.

It was June 2013 when I realized the urgency to create space for authenticity. But authenticity comes at a very high price that many may not be able to afford. For authenticity, you may have to let go of certain people, things, and places. And it will not be easy. Actually, it may be the hardest thing that you will ever do in your life. Even for me, I know that the negotiations are next to impossible.

Even for me, I know that the negotiations are next to impossible.

As I stumble upon the generation after me, I wish you well in your exploration of the world. I want you to find new ways of thinking and seeing the world. Don’t you dare be afraid. No, you reach out and you make this place a better place than how you found it.

The youth has always sparked revolutions across the globe. You do not need permission to do what is right. You only need to have the heart to do it.

We are waiting for you. We are giving you the torch.

And when the world gets too hard to handle, I want you to just hold on.

 

Choosing the Children, Choosing the Community

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It was a hard night for me. One of those nights that consisted of cups of coffee, deep reflection and late-night conversation. Yes, it was that kind of night. Why? In a series of unexpected and unplanned events, I was told some concerning information with the onslaught of grimacing questions to follow.

Snapchat buzzed me. I had a notification. One of my beloved Somali friends sent me a video of a well-known Black speaker discussing the Black-community and the need for deep-reflection and action. In talking to her about the issues of Black struggle throughout the African Diaspora, another beloved friend sent me a text telling me that her young four-years old, Black son wanted to be White.

In being a product of urban and suburban education, I know the plight of Black children. I understand it very well. In the early years of my identity-development, I wanted to be White. It became so bad that I took actual steps in making this happen. I remember making a conscious decision in seventh grade to look White and to be desirable like my White counterparts. So, I decided to buy some blonde hair-dye and skin lightening creme. I tried not eating for a period of time to lose my curves and to look similar to the White girls in my school. I wanted blonde-hair with highlights, a thin body, and White-skin. I didn’t care how I would achieve this goal. I didn’t. I wanted it. I needed it. It was my path to acceptance, love and upward mobility in my environment.

In an attempt to become White, I felt like Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I was deeply moved by Whiteness and the elevation it was given in the classroom, on the streets, and within my own family. In being deeply confused on how to feel about myself, I didn’t know who to confide in. Growing up, I remembered watching Good Times, Parenthood, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, The Bernie Mac Show and etc. I remember watching these various Black shows and connecting deeply with them, but I still didn’t know where to fit within the Black community. Even when watching these shows, I saw how complex the Black identity is. You will see Black characters that would elevate Whiteness while others wouldn’t. And in these shows, the White gaze was ever-present.

In my own household, I didn’t receive any special-education on Black History (African or African-American). If I learned anything, I learned it from the snippets I would see on television or at school. Of course, these were unreliable sources in most instances. As a Black girl, I was fascinated by television, magazines, books and the outside world. As a teenager, I would often read Seventeen, Teen Vogue and Cosmopolitan. At the time, these magazines would show White bodies with the exception of a few light-skin or biracial Black girls. Most of the beauty suggestions were tailored to White-skin and those with straight or curly hair. Of course, I became lost in all of this. In asking my parents about Black History, they would laugh and tell me that we are Americans. We aren’t Africans. We aren’t from Africa. It was hard to swallow these words because I really wanted to know about myself. In school and within social-circles, I felt as if I was dying a slow-death. Nobody was giving me what I needed as a Black girl-child.

In the latter years of my education, I went off to the university and thirsted for Black-History.  I knew that a Black Studies’ class would quench this thirst. Dr. Clovis Semmes, professor, and director of the Black Studies’ program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City became a lifeline for me. I would ask questions, send emails and visit him in his office because I wanted to know myself. I wanted to know about my heritage. I wanted to learn what I wasn’t given in my previous years of schooling. In searching my university for this kind of education, I was turned away from numerous departments- Religious Studies, Women and Gender Studies, English Literature and Language and the History department. I was told to go to the Black Studies’ program. Out of an entire urban-based university, I was told to go to a place that isn’t even considered a department. In finally finding my way in the right direction, Dr. Semmes told me, “You have to study on your own. You have to seek out the answers for yourself. You have to supplement your education with Black-education. You can’t depend on this university”. I will never forget those words. In being told these words over four years ago, I have done exactly that. I have challenged myself to learn about the Black-experience throughout the African Diaspora.

In going through all of this, I know I am not yet done. The fight to love me in a world that doesn’t love Black or Brown people is hard. However, I can’t give up. In working with Black and Brown children for the last three years, I made a commitment to them. I made a commitment to making an impact on Black and Brown communities. In stepping outside of academia for the first time, I went to work

In stepping outside of academia for the first time, I went to work in the Center Public School District within Kansas City, Missouri at an elementary school. In working with kindergarten through fifth-grade students, I saw that many things had not changed from when I was growing up as a young Black child. In giving students the option of drawing a self-portrait, basketball or board-games, some chose to draw themselves. In checking on the students and making my rounds, I saw that many of the young, Black girls were drawing themselves with blonde-hair and peach-skin. I asked some of them why they chose to draw this version of themselves and they told me, “she is beautiful”.  In remembering the words of Dr. Ominata Okpokodu, “whenever you see an injustice of an issue, you must interrupt. You must disrupt. You can’t allow the cycle to be ignored. You have a duty to change what isn’t right,” I told the young girls that their skin, hair, and bodies were beautiful and didn’t need to be changed. Of course, this may not be the ultimate solution, but I believe that this is necessary. In an urban-school in which most of the teachers and staff members are White, I knew that the children were searching for themselves in what appeared to them daily.

In a scene on Good Times, the young-son Michael placed a Black Jesus on the wall as an attempt to resist and counter the White Jesus on the wall. In walking in on this change, his mother, Florida Evans became dismissive of this swap. She told her son that this particular phenotype of Jesus was wrong. Not only was it wrong, but she wasn’t raised with this Jesus. She argued that her White Jesus was an heirloom and she wouldn’t replace it with anything else. In seeing this back and forth argument between a Black mother and her son, I was puzzled. Why? I knew that Michael was looking for the same thing as me. Michael was looking for his Black self in a world of Whiteness. He wanted to see his image somewhere. But like most images, Whiteness would be the only acceptable image and representation to look to.

In 2014, the young, Black girls at the table drawing themselves were only drawing the image that they had seen through their Black eyes. Their image wasn’t elevated. Their image wasn’t on the wall. Their image was shunned and denied space to exist. And like those Black little girls and like Pecola, I wanted to be White so that I could be loved and accepted.

However, this must change. It has to change. Children are the future. And tomorrow will be their world. As I think about Black America, I cry because the struggle continues with the children in our households, in our classrooms, in our places of worship and within our communities. We have to teach them to love themselves. We have to teach them to resist. We have to teach them to create their own narratives. We have to teach them to create and build. We have to give them the space to be Black and proud.

We have to create communities of young, Black leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers, writers, film-makers, activists, lawyers, painters and etc. We have to love them. We have to love them.

We have to love them because this world sure doesn’t.

When we choose the children, we choose the community.

Social-Justice: My Experiences as a Black Student

And here I am, a Black woman, thinking about my own experiences with social-inequities within my years of education as a young, Black child.

As I read, AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (International Baccalaureate) programs are great programs for students due to the academic-rigor of their curriculum, but their lack of accessibility with many urban and rural schools is problematic. Not only that, but many schools lack funding for these programs to be implemented. Now, when I was in high-school, I took two AP courses and thought they were rigorous. Shoot, I actually read in these classes. However, my high-school was suburban and the district had money to allocate towards this kind of program for its students. Honestly, they had every AP class you could think of. Interestingly, I was the only Black student in both of my classes. Yes, there were other Black kids, but I was the only one in my classes.

See, the tracking-system within many schools is egregious for inequities. For many students of color, you are placed on a lower-track and simply expected to take classes for graduation, if that. There’s not a real push for academic-excellence. Honestly, you’re just another face in a crowd of Black and Brown students.

My parents were pretty persistent in not tolerating racist and classist behavior from school-counselors, teachers and administrators. In seeing this kind of fight in my parents, I didn’t allow myself to fail nor to settle for an ‘okay’ grade. I worked hard in school. Yes, it was tough. On several occasions, I had to deal with racist peers and racist teachers. Heck, my school-counselor wasn’t very helpful at all.

As I think about accessibility and students of color, it is more than vital to have great educators and administrators within these systems of education. It’s never okay to simply pass students along or to simply get these ‘Black or Brown’ children out of here. In many instances, this is what I saw and heard from other peers. Black and Brown students at the high-schools I went to, they weren’t supposed to succeed. They weren’t supposed to graduate, honestly. They weren’t really supposed to be there.

As I grew older and went off to college, I started to reflect on my education from urban-Kansas City to the Parkhill School District. If I knew what I know now, I would’ve been a better peer to the other students that looked like me. The teachers weren’t really there for us. Maybe a few, but not too many. We were truly seen as outsiders in a school of middle to upper-class White students from affluent families. Yes, class does matter. Yes, race does matter. All of it matters.

And as I headed off to UMKC for my Bachelor’s and Master’s, I realized how political education is. Education is political. Education is unequal and unfair. Quality education isn’t afforded to everyone. And depending on the education you did receive, you may or may not get into the college or university that you want to get into in order to complete your years of higher-education. So, I do believe that there needs to be advocacy for Black and Brown kids, especially in urban-districts.

Hell, I believe there needs to be advocacy for Black and Brown kids in suburban-schools too. Hell, I was one of those Black kids in the suburbs that almost fell through the cracks of racism.