Are You Playing Oppressor In Your Classrooms?

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In our schools, are we silencing the students that sit in front of us? Are we putting out that fire in a student? Are we teaching students that dissent is unpatriotic? In one of the classrooms that I work in, I heard the teacher tell her students that good citizens support their country and government. Say what? My mouth dropped. My heart flopped out of my mouth. In the history of America, wrong has been done and committed by this country. Laws sanctioned by a government doesn’t make them right. The creation of America was based in slaughter, subjugation and domination. So, I ask you, “what are you teaching to your students?”.

Are we teaching students to simply accept authority as truth? I refuse to teach this. Ever! In understanding the history of America, I know that students must be taught to question and to be critical in their thinking. I want them to know that authority-figures doesn’t warrant your blind-following. You must think for yourself. You must look at the various parts that make up a system. You must eradicate oppression(s). You must ask yourself the questions that aren’t being asked of you. I could care less about being a good citizen if this means accepting: war-crimes, state-sanctioned torture, war, racism, sexism, homophobia and etc.

One of the most powerful statements that one can hear is this:

Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner. You must be eating some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.

“THE BALLOT OR THE BULLET,” SPEECH, APRIL 3 1964, CLEVELAND, OHIO (PUBLISHED IN MALCOLM X SPEAKS, CH. 3, 1965)

For the past century or so, several revolutions and movements have occured within America and other countries due to the fact that groups were and is denied rights that one would think as being inalienable. However, this has not and isn’t the case for several groups in America and across the globe. This work isn’t easy. It will never be easy. It has never been easy. Nonetheless, more work has to be done. And this work begins with the current and next generation. We have to educate this generation to be radical in their thinking so that they can teach those that come after them to be just as radical, if not, more. There’s no time to waste time.

In many classrooms, teachers are playing the role of the oppressor. Teachers are rewarding obedience and punishing those that are rebellious. Why are we rewarding obedience and silence? Because this is the way of domination. You strip the oppressed of their voices. their narratives. their lives. You want the oppressed to simply yield without questioning. You want them to take your word as being truth. as being their narrative. The oppressor can’t afford to have dissenters because this disrupts the system.

As an educator, when will you begin to teach wholeness? In the words of activist and feminist, Nawal El Sadaawi,

How many were the years of my life that went by before my body, and my self became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from the people who held me in their grasp since the very first day?

In our classrooms, there are many students that are fighting to belong to themselves. To love themselves. To hear themselves speak. To see themselves. To know that they matter. That their narrative matters. However, this act of resisting doesn’t happen easily for students that are located in classrooms with teachers as oppressors. I’ve seen teachers break the spirits of students. Put out that flame. Put out that narrative. Silence students. Forever. Where is the healing in this kind of environment? Where is the love?

In the words of the beloved bell hooks in her text Teaching to Transgress:

To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences. (130)

Students must have space to voice their narratives. On the other hand, educators must be vulnerable in this process as well. It’s not good enough to believe that students can simply disclose personal experiences without the educator doing the same in return. There must be equal vulnerability. A relationship founded upon love is one in which subjugation and domination is not apart of its framework.

So, when will you stop playing oppressor in the classroom?

My First Black Studies Course: A Place of Resistance and Healing

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Three years ago, I took one of my first Black Studies’courses as an undergrad. As an undergrad that was wavering in so many directions with so many points of interest, I wanted to do something for myself. I wanted to learn about me. For the first time in my life, I was going to delve into Black History. As a young child, my parents never told my brother and me about our history as Black folks. So, I depended on school to do the work. However, this dependency quickly became my downfall.

As a student of color that attended schools in suburbia, I wasn’t afforded the privilege of learning about my history, thus I felt disconnected. I felt lost. I felt robbed. I felt as if my Blackness was less-important than European-history. I felt as if my peers were gaining insight about their history while I was being erased and treated as an invisible. I can remember my ignorance of self becoming a place of self-hatred. I hated myself. I hated my skin. I hated my hair. I hated being poor. I hated everything about myself that ‘they’ made fun of. I didn’t want to be an invisible anymore. I wanted to be acknowledged. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be validated. I wanted to fit in. However, I never received this during my years of school until I took my first course in Black Studies.

My Black Studies course became a site of resistance for me. It was a place of community and it felt like it. My course had all African-American students with the same desire to learn about self. We were all desiring to learn about our genesis. In our class, we were a family. On our campus, we were outcasts. We were having to face an institution that prides itself in urban-education while enforcing Whiteness.We were expected to unknow ourselves. We were expected to smile in our urban-based institution while being told that Black Studies is where we should go to learn about ourselves. We were departmentalized. We weren’t given the privilege of having our voices, bodies and names heard in a typical curriculum. We had to go to a department that catered to our needs because the other spaces on campus were White with bourgeois values.

For many of my courses at my university, I felt that my Blackness was a disruption. I felt that my voice and my body was unwelcomed. In one of my undergrad classes, a professor asked me on the first day of class to tell everyone where I was from. Due to my brown skin and my hijab (Muslim headwrap), she felt the need to pry into my life and to humiliate me in front of my peers as if my body and visual representation wasn’t acceptable to our predominant White-class. In  seeking to remain calm with such a request, I told her that I was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri with parents from Mississippi and Missouri. In telling her my answer, she gave a faint smile with the rest of the class gazing upon her expressionless face. However, this was not the first or last time that I felt as if my body and voice was a site of disruption. I soon had to find strength in knowing that I had a choice. I could become knowledgeable about myself and feel pride in my Blackness. Or I could simply cave in. I could curl up. Assimilate. Continue to hate myself.

However, I knew I had gotten too far to simply cave-in. I wanted to grow intellectually. I wanted to begin the process of loving myself. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to know my history. So, I took my first course in Black Studies’ to start my journey. At the beginning of my first Black Studies’ course, our professor asked our class if we knew our native tongue. In being caught off guard by his question, we all looked around and nodded ‘no’. In feeling upset about this reality, I wanted to do something about it. So, I started learning Kiswahili. In an effort to learn Kiswahili, I knew I would be one step closer to Africa, in someway, in some form. However, he never told us that the English language can be a site of resistance. In Teaching to Transgress by Black feminist, Dr. Bell Hooks, she stated that “learning English, learning to speak the alien tongue, was one way enslaved Africans began to reclaim their personal power within a context of domination. Possessing, a shared language, Black folks could find again a way to make community, and a means to create the political solidarity necessary to resist”.

In thinking about Hooks’ statement, I knew that I have a responsibility to speak. I have a responsibility to be truthful to myself in my endeavor of learning about myself. I do not seek to live my life through the lens of White-supremacy. In knowing the history of Black folks in America, we can take the English language and find it as a starting point for healing. We can take this language of oppression and use it as a place of resistance. We can write books. We can write poetry. We can change the way we view ourselves. The way we start to think about ourselves. We can use this language to center ourselves. To find healing. To find wholeness. In thinking about my professor’s question, I knew the validity of such a thought. He wanted us to think. He wanted us to see the oppressive nature of those that came to take. To conquer. To spread the blood of our ancestors. However, our African ancestors knew that there was power in taking the oppressor’s language to their advantage. They knew that they had to form community, somehow. They knew they had to start somewhere. So, they started with the English language and created a new Black culture out of it. A culture that we can call community. The same community that I had found love and healing within on the first day of my Black Studies’ course. My Black Studies’ course was the first place that I learned to think critically. To think about myself as a whole person. To think about my responsibilities as a student of color. As a person of color in our world. 

Moving in the Direction of Progress: The World of Children

We would not have gotten past the level of pure adaptation to the world if we had not reached the possibility, while thinking about adaptation itself, of also using it to program transformation. For this reason, progressive education, whether at home or at school, must never eradicate the learner’s sense of pride and self worth, his or her ability to oppose, by imposing on him or her a quietism which denies his or her being. That is why one must work out the unity between one’s discourse, one’s actions, and one’s motivating utopia. In this sense, one must take advantage of every opportunity to give testimony to one’s commitment to the realization of a better world- a world more just, less ugly, and more substantively democratic. -Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Indignation

In thinking about the words of Freire, I struggle daily to remind myself that I must never put out the flame of any student. I must allow the student to stay on fire, ready to light whatever comes their way. However, many schools are set up to tame students. Students are encouraged to act like cattle. In my conversation with a professor at my university, she told me that she was always full of life and never allowed school to put out her flame. She was that ‘loud, black girl that wouldn’t shut up’. In seeing how school would break the spirits of students, she was committed to being herself. She was committed to the fire inside of her.

As I engage with students on a daily basis within my primary-school, I am always thinking about this. I always remind students that there are limitations on their behavior, but they must never change who they are. They must always remain who they are, but grow intellectually. I think school can be extremely restricting and suffocating. It can drag students out of their vibrancy and breed a population of students that are complacent to rules and regulations. I refuse to teach this to students. I want to teach students to think critically. They must not feel obligated to agree with an authority-figure or a system. They must learn that citizenship doesn’t mean complacency.

Today, I experienced a teacher telling her students that they must honor this country’s flag,be respectful citizens and appreciate American government. I must say that this can be a good way to help students understand their role(s) in citizenship. However, I would’ve had a caveat to such a statement. I would have told them that there is a time to rebel and to say ‘no’ if injustices are present. Nonetheless, this caveat would need to be explained in an age-appropriate manner. Students are aware of the world around them. They see what is happening in their neighborhoods. They see what is happening in other neighborhoods. So, do not believe they are ignorant to the world around them. I believe many people tend to be overprotective of children. They aren’t given the chance to think critically. They are coddled until they are deathly afraid of the world. Teach them to think. Teach them to read. Teach them to question.

I can’t simply accept this notion that children are ignorant. I’ve worked with children and they understand more than you think that they know. They are observing the world just like adults. They are trying to fill in the gaps just like adults. They are dealing with the massive influx of information that adults are trying to get through on a daily basis. Do not believe that they are ignorant. I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that they are very intelligent. They are growing in knowledge, especially as consumers of this technologically-advanced society.

So, allow them to explore. Explore yourself to explore what they are exploring. Become aware of the things they are into. Do not hold them back from discovering new things. Yes, set limits. However, do not allow those limits that you set to prevent them from being the great individual that they can be. They can add to the collective and do much good. Just observe them. Let them show you the world through their eyes. They will help guide you in your knowledge of the world.

Healer’s Edition: Vanessa Marco on Colorism

Vanessa Marco, a poet of sorts, is powerful and intense in her delivery of poetry. Her poem over the topic of colorism is very important because it brings up the issue of white-supremacy. Colorism is the concept that usually applies to people of color. Colorism speaks on the white-supremacist’s notion of ideal beauty. The lighter you are than the closer you are to whiteness and ideal beauty.

In my years growing up, I can remember Black girls telling me how lucky I was to be light-skinned. Some of my Black peers would gaze upon my skin and offer me privilege not afforded to those that were darker than me. Unfortunately, I would encounter the question of “am I Black enough?” or even Black at all. My racial-classification was always in question. It became a guessing game. In some circles, I am still treated as if I do not belong. In past experiences, I would be treated as an outcast among White peers because I was not White. I was still Black despite my complexion.

In this messy game of ‘who am i,’ I got to the point of finally understanding that this was white-supremacy. My body was gazed upon through the lens of white-supremacy. I was either given or denied space, according to those in power in a particular environment. In countries all across the world, people of color are constantly fighting to have space. Space. Either denied or given. However, I am tired of this game. I am tired of having to deal with myself through the lens of white-supremacy.

In this rite of passaage, I write. I resist. I refuse to be categorized, marginalized, denied or approved of due to my skin-tone.

Past Regret, Future Change: I Am Choosing to Feel Pleasure Again

Healing for many of us comes through music. Listening to it. Breathing it. Creating it. Living it. On a daily basis, I find healing in listening to jazz musicians, rap, r&b and whatever else soothes the soul. I want to feel. I want to know that whatever moves me is a calling. An intentional feeling that is God-sent. For most of my life, I played the violin. I had found delight in it until I was told to leave it. I was told to separate myself from this. In following this interpretation of a religious-teaching from individuals of my community, I detached myself from it. I restricted myself from this deep and most-satisfying pleasure.

Years later, I had the strength to pull out a recording that my mother had of me when I was in high-school. It was an orchestra concert that I had played in for school. In listening to the bows race across the strings on our instruments, I felt tears falling upon my cheeks. I felt awakened. I felt at home. I felt whole. I felt as if God had pieced me back together after all of those years of being separated from a deep passion that I had in my life. This felt sacred to me. This act of simply listening to the music that I created with others felt beautiful. I was listening to a concert that I had remembered so intimately. I wanted to place my hands on a bow and hear the strings make music. I wanted to smell the wood. I wanted to see the risen fly to the heavens as my bow glide off of the strings. This was God-sent. Most divine. Most pleasurable.

In remembering this pleasure, I know the pain of being disconnected from what awakens your soul. I can’t get back the years that I was separated from my violin. I can’t. This will never be possible. However, I know that whatever makes you feel alive is something that you should keep close to. This feeling of joy is a blessing. This feeling of a deep and intimate happiness should make you understand the sacred nature of this thing that you love so much. In my years going forth, I will never allow myself to become separated from what gives me life.

In going forth in this healing-process, I wanted to share with everyone a jazz musician that truly awakens the soul, our beloved, Sun Ra:

“the trouble with the people on this planet is they refuse to think they refuse to believe anything except what they know”
― Sun Ra, Prophetika Book One

i will love her after my leaving

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i will love her after my leaving
sip on cups of her words at my need for guidance
she lives within the parts of me too hidden to be shown to others

i will love her after my leaving
her brown skin and most beloved hidden smile beneath the pain intrigues me
she told me to come back

i will love her after my leaving
dance fiercely in my woman-ness in an unforgiving manner
she told me that there is magic in my soul

i will love her after my leaving
that my body is more than a man’s resting stop
she told me that i must care for myself tenderly, intentionally and deliberately

i will love her after my leaving
the way she held my heart after the pain
she told me that not everyone deserves the love that i give out

i will love her after my leaving
tracing my way back to her, back to her, her coming back to me, me going back to her
she told me that love creates space, that love creates a way, that love is ever giving

i will love her after my leaving
she held me in her arms, so tenderly, the way that mama hugs me
“dont you ever go too far. you know where i’m at”

i will love her after my leaving
her hands outstretched like roots, a horizon in the distance, telling me that i must never forget where warmth is
“remember i am here. always waiting for you. to hear your story. to see you in your greatness.”

Healer’s Edition: Aja Monet’s Words in Brussels

Aja Monet is one of my favorite poets. I have never felt at home until I heard her words. She became a healer for me. A lover from afar. A sister from another mother. This poet gave me life when I was lifeless. She is truly a beautiful individual. I can’t wait until I begin teaching my high-school students. I believe her poetry is moving on many levels. She gives life to the lifeless. She awakened the goddess in me.

She Told Us, “This May Be Her Healing”

We sat in our space of healing. Our space of community. We became beloved community. It was the second day of classes for me at my new job. As a paraprofessional, I helped one out of two French teachers that I am assigned to daily to delve into the concept of community with our fourth and fifth graders. As a practitioner of visionary feminism, I felt it necessary to hear the voices of the students that sat in front of us. In a class of twelve students of color, we created space for narratives that are so often missing or silenced from many textbooks and curricula within schools. In creating this space, we promised to respect one another in our risk-taking. We understood that such risk-taking may be painful, but necessary. In the prompt they were given, “What do you like and dislike about your community,” we were able to speak the joys and pains associated with the places we come from. In reading Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, I learned that educators shouldn’t expect students to take risks if they aren’t willing to do the same in return. In being a past and current student, I’ve always felt distance between myself and a teacher and/or professor that would expect students to disclose personal information without them doing the same. This felt unfair. A bit skeptical. A lack of trust on the teacher’s behalf. In wanting to be different and to build rapport with my students, I chose to participate in the same prompt that I gave to them. I chose to dig deep to share a part of myself. To be vulnerable. To be open and honest. In detailing my own community, I told the students that I lived in their city and saw the same things that they themselves would see. I see homelessness. I see poverty. I see run-down houses. I see pain. However, I see the joys of living in my community. I see smiles. I see individuals pitching in to help others. I see kids walking together to the local corner-store. I see the beautiful and ugly parts of my city- our city.

In sharing this part of myself, I saw the students sit in awe. They listened. They knew that I wouldn’t expect them to take risks that I wasn’t willing to take. In starting off, the students started to read theirs’ one-by-one. The journal-entries were personal. Open and honest. Painful and quite personal. For many of the students, the presence of gun-shooting in their communities is reality. The fear of what is outside is real. However, the students shared their joys too. Some of the students felt joy in seeing their neighbors help out in their neighborhoods, or seeing kids playing with other kids. In one student’s journal-entry, she shared with us how she feels scared in her neighborhood. She doesn’t like going outside. She prefers to stay indoors. In the telling of her narrative, some of the students giggled at her fear of going outside. In hearing these giggles, the French teacher quickly told the class that “This may be her healing. So, let her speak. She is being honest. She wrote what is on her heart”.  In this moment of truth, I felt something happen to me. I knew this woman’s words were from the Most Divine. The Creator had allowed her to be the vehicle for such healing. In her simple, but powerful words, all of us started to realize that beloved community allows for healing. Beloved community allows for pain to be said and heard. In beloved community, we work together to get through the pain.

In gathering the daily journals of the students, I began to read about the lives of those that chose to not read. In reading these entries, I understood the importance of loving. We must love. We must choose to love to live. We are all coming from different circumstances and lifestyles. We all hurt. We all need to express ourselves. The path to healing is not easy. It comes with its own struggles. However, it must be taken, if we are ready. These students didn’t have to write anything and some didn’t. Some simply left an empty sheet of notebook paper to be collected. However, the ones that did choose to participate had chosen to risk everything. This act of risking is hard. It’s brutally painful for many of us. However, as the French teacher had told the class, “this may be healing”.  Healing. this. may. be.